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With just a piano and a microphone, Prince embraces a new kind of freedom

by Andrea Swensson

January 22, 2016

It wasn't the wrenching version "Nothing Compares 2 U." It wasn't the gleeful sing-along to "Raspberry Beret," or the Joni Mitchell cover, or the sheer thrill of hearing "Black Sweat" sung over swirling piano. No, the most surprising part of Prince's "Piano and a Microphone" performance at Paisley Park wasn't even a song at all — it was the revelation that in all these years of performing, he's somehow never gotten around to playing quite this way before.

"This is the first time I've done a concert alone, ever. And you're here the first night," Prince said, smirking and bouncing a little in his seat. "Congrats to both of us."

For a musician who has made a career out of outshining everyone else in the room, there was an unexpected novelty to watching him command a stage alone, and I couldn't help but wonder how we have made it this far into Prince's career without ever seeing him play unaccompanied. One of the most well-worn tropes in rock music is when artists trot out solo acoustic renditions of their biggest hits. Did it ever even occur to us to crave the MTV Unplugged experience from such a revered performer?

The "Piano and a Microphone" set-up is pretty much a complete 180 from Prince's recent work; the loud, sludgy blues-rock of his 3RDEYEGIRL project was a mostly physical endeavor, and the songs Prince wrote for that group were either metaphorically or literally about sex. Alone at the piano, he was able to reveal a more delicate, sensitive side, and many of his lyrics turned inward and focused on matters of the heart.

One of 3RDEYEGIRL's more hard-driving songs, "The Unexpected," was completely unraveled and turned into a compelling ballad, and the Musicology cut "Call My Name" became a spare, aching tribute to lovelorn vulnerability. After a particularly devastating rendition of "Purple Rain," even Prince was overcome by the song's unmistakable power; with the agony of his guttural screams and pleading falsetto still ringing in our ears, he leapt to his feet and ran off stage, then sheepishly climbed back up a few moments later.

"I forget that music sometimes is emotional. I may have picked the wrong line-up of songs," he confessed, clearly shaken. "I'll do my best to get through it."

The performance space at Paisley Park was completely rearranged for this affair, with the giant glyph-decorated double doors that separate the main room from the smaller sound stage serving as the backdrop for Prince's purple grand piano, and a kaleidoscope-like projection created a trippy, mesmerizing focal point. Not that we needed much direction on where to look; once Prince sashayed up to his piano bench and took a seat, our collective gaze was so intense that he commented, "I can feel your eyes, staring, looking like you wanna go somewhere."

Turning to the audience, he coyly asked, "You wanna go somewhere?"

The entire performance felt like one long journey, with many of the songs flowing together in beautiful cascades of arpeggios, and it was hard not to get lost in the flutters and tones. Dressed head-to-toe in pink silk, Prince never once stopped moving, and one got the sense that he would be happy exploring the instrument and examining the insides of his songs in this stripped-down setting whether there was a room full of people watching him or not. Sometimes, when he would reach the end of a song he would jump up from his bench and pace around like a boxer. At another point, after the politically charged "Dear Mr. Man," he stood up and pumped the edge of his piano with his fist, clearly buzzing from the energy he'd untapped.

While Prince is obviously an arena-sized performer, there is something so enticing about the thought of this "Piano and a Microphone" show taking place in theaters or other small spaces where it can be absorbed in quiet reverie. As Prince himself said on Thursday night, these shows are all about freedom — and it was downright awe-inspiring to witness a master of his craft cut loose and start anew.

Set list:

The Unexpected

The Love We Make

Look at Me, Look at U

1000 X's and O's

Call My Name

Purple Rain

The Dance

Te Amo Corazon / A Million Days

Nothing Compares 2 U

How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore?

The Ladder

I Wanna Be Your Lover

Raspberry Beret

Starfish and Coffee

Sometimes it Snows in April

Dear Mr. Man

A Case of You (Joni Mitchell)


Kiss / Black Sweat

Free Urself

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Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.