“If you didn’t come to party, don’t bother knockin’ on my door" - Prince, 1999
It sure seemed like everyone was there to party -- the line of anxious fans to get into the first of Prince’s two-day, four-show stop at San Diego’s Hard Rock Hotel ran all the way down to the foot of 5th Avenue and went for a good stretch around the corner.
The lengthy process of swapping the entire crowd’s paper tickets for wristbands took time but was handled quite efficiently, and everyone was inside the prematurely darkened venue shortly after 7:30 p.m., with the house lights coming on some 10 minutes later. Why? Who knows?
Soon, exuberant, ecstatic ticket-holders -- the room was heavily populated with fans who were alive and well when Prince debuted in 1978 (at $250 a ticket, you knew the room would lean that way), but plenty of young concert-goers were there, too, and some of San Diego's music mainstays as well, including Tim Mays of the Casbah; Tim Lowman of Low Volts and Blackout Party, who was with Monterey Salka of Dirty Sirens; and FM 94/9's Tim Pyles and his wife -- were nearly filling the room.
Just after 8 p.m., bassist Ida Nielsen of Prince’s new all-female band, 3rd Eye Girl, poked her head through the curtain at the 1,000-capacity Legends Ballroom to make an announcement.
Her job was to inform the anxious crowd, once again, that there was absolutely no photography at the show. Although it came on the heels of multiple earlier warnings from staff and security, Nielsen was all kinds of charming as she posed for photos of her own while explaining that people would be kicked out for even trying to snap a smartphone pic of the Purple One. It also appeared to be a sign the show was going to start on time.
But when the lights finally went down for good at 8:40, no one seemed to care. They were there to party, and they let the iconic musician know it with a deafening ovation.
Prince, chewing gum with that trademark smirk on his face, first appeared to the surprised crowed by surveying the room from the stack of monitors on stage right, arms crossed. It was an electric, unexpected showman's moment for those fortunate enough to be nearby.
All the in-line whispering about a show of exclusively new material went out the window as the diminutive frontman, along with Nielson, guitarist Donna Grantis and drummer Hannah Ford, opened with a slow-grooved, funky version of “Let’s Go Crazy.”
“San Diego? Are you ready to live out loud?” he asked midsong before ripping into the song's signature guitar solo.
The crowd were loud and responsive right off the bat. The seven-time Grammy winner asked them to clap and they clapped. He asked them to sing and they sang.
Flanked by LED displays and a stage-wide video backdrop, the underutilized effects were no match for the palpable, infectious energy of the band.
“San Diego: Sorry for the delay," Prince told the crowd. "We’re gonna make it up to you."
And he did.
The charismatic bandleader ditched his jacket within a few minutes and let his guitar do the talking for the rest of the 90-minute set -- including fees, that works out to about three bucks a minute.
Clad in a black turtleneck with a big purple heart on the right side, The Artist seemed to be in a great mood, frequently talking to the crowd and constantly asking for its participation -- and they were only too happy to oblige. The appreciative audience members sang along, clapped and screamed just as loud during new song “Screwdriver” as they did during hits like “Alphabet St.” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.”
And when Prince sat down at his LED-covered piano to bust out a newly arranged version of “Purple Rain,” it was obvious he meant business.
“Don’t that feel good?” he asked the crowd. “Didn’t think y’all were going to church tonight, did you?”
The assembled congregation responded in kind when “Purple Rain” morphed into “Nothing Compares 2 U” – the song Prince initially penned for Sinead O’Connor. But it was all just a build-up to a furious finale that included an abbreviated version of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” a funked-out version of "Raspberry Beret" B-side, “She’s Always in My Hair,” and the audience favorite “Sign o’ the Times.”
Then the Afro-ed guitarist teased everyone with a few quickie riffs from “When Doves Cry” before launching into an instrumental version of Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl” while a dozen women -- they looked like handpicked San Diego fans -- and one very lucky dude danced onstage.
After exiting the stage and closing the curtains, Prince began an ever louder call-and-response to the still-darkened room for encouragement before returning to end the night appropriately with an extended version of the party anthem "Housequake," much to the delight of everyone in the Legends Ballroom.
As we were escorted out at about 10:10 to make room for the second show of the night, most faces had ear-to-ear grins. Even at the price they had to pay, it was hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with the spectacle they had witnessed.