Concert Review: Prince’s ‘Piano & a Microphone’ Captivates Oakland

PrinceIn late 2015 when Prince first announced plans for his Piano & a Microphone tour, kicking off in Europe, fans across the globe readied themselves to purchase tickets as soon as they were available. For what was to be the first leg of the tour, however, plans came to a screeching halt following the Paris attacks in November, causing the artist to suspend the tour temporarily.

Shortly thereafter, however, news came that Prince would host a one night only Piano & a Microphone gala at his Paisley Park complex in January. Fans and critics heralded the performance as one of his best, a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience Prince up close and personal on his own turf, in an intimate setting which exposed some of his greatest vulnerabilities. By the time he confirmed Piano & and Microphone shows in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia and Auckland, New Zealand in February, the buzz surrounding the show had reached fever pitch, with speculation about U.S. tour dates circulating across the internet but no dates in place. It was a waiting game of epic proportions, an extended tease only Prince could finesse.

When tickets for Prince’s inaugural Piano & a Microphone shows at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre—the first stateside performances—finally went on sale, they sold out in a matter of minutes. Both shows—7PM and 10PM—went so quickly that those of us who weren’t able to snag a seat for either of the February 28th performances were left feeling utterly distraught. (The subsequent after party at San Francisco’s 1015 Folsom, however, was a sweet come up; although Prince didn’t perform, he came out and greeted us briefly before returning to his private section. Also on hand to celebrate were Apollonia and Susan Moonsie, two thirds of Apollonia 6, and Jill Jones, all of whom had come to the Bay Area for Denise Matthews’ [aka Vanity] home going services the day before.) Whispers of another show took wing as early as Monday morning, and by Wednesday it was official: Prince would bring the Piano & a Microphone show to Oakland’s Oracle Arena on Friday, March 4, and tickets would go on sale Wednesday at 4PM. Solid.

Following a delay in opening the house due to technical issues during sound check, the audience excitedly poured into Oracle and quickly found their seats. The “no cell phones, no photography” message looming from the Jumbotron screens overhead did not deter concert goers from snapping selfies before the show, and plenty were able to capture stills and videos once the show began (unfortunately for some, ushers made good on the venue’s promise to remove anyone caught using their cell phones during the show).

Somewhere close to the 10 o’clock hour, the house fell to black and a chorus of cheers erupted as the curtains rose to reveal a purple piano set in the middle of the stage. Colorful kaleidoscopic animations danced across the screens and, at long last, Prince emerged in a flood of purple light and issued forth the first few lines from “Wow”/”The Unexpected,” then eased into “Somewhere Here on Earth.” Over the next 2 hours and 3 (4?) encores, he took us through his mighty bag of hits where the entire audience could sing along (”Little Red Corvette,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star”); newer tunes it seemed only a few of us knew–at least where I was sitting, singing all the parts (”Baltimore,” “Rock n Roll Love Affair,” “Free Ur Self”); and masterful re-workings and re-arrangements that gave the sweetest kind of life (what he did with “Black Sweat” was funk personified, and the plaintive desperation on “Thieves in the Temple”–particularly the additional verses from the remix–was nothing short of divine).

While performing “Cream,” Prince preached the importance of self-preservation and encouraged the audience to sing the line from the song, “ain’t nobody better,” while admiring ourselves in the mirror. Classics like “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore” and “Raspberry Beret” sounded as fresh as ever, while album cuts like “Starfish and Coffee” and “Paisley Park” satisfied die-hard fans’ (like myself) yen to hear more than just the radio hits. As seems to always happen at every Prince show I’ve ever attended (and I think Friday night’s might have been #20), the audience came in several bars too soon with the “oooh, oooh, ooh-ooh-oohs” during “Purple Rain,” but it was all good; what mattered most was that everyone was having a great time, and Prince guaranteed that by delivering a stellar, heart-felt performance. Breaks between sets found Prince riding off the stage on a bicycle, causing uproarious laughter to ripple through the room. He was in high spirits, returning to the stage with a lightness of being and lithe, graceful movement that made it clear he wasn’t through thrilling us. Did I mention the lights on the soles of his shoes? He conducted the audience through favorites such as “Kiss” and “Nothing Compares 2 U,” then upped the funk quotient when he dropped the beat and went into “When Doves Cry.” 

Another standout moment of the show was when he went all Christopher Tracy and teased us with a little “Venus de Milo” and “Under the Cherry Moon,” and the gorgeous “Sometimes It Snows in April” played like a love note from another world. A master at keeping his audience right where he wants us, Prince didn’t hesitate to hop off stage, disappear, then re-emerge to give us more in a series of encores. After a particularly long absence, where the house lights came up to suggest the show was over, massive audience attrition resulted in the opportunity to for those of us in the nose bleeds to cop a spot closer to the stage. By the time Prince reappeared—in a new outfit, naturally—to hit us with what would be his final encore that included “Do Me, Baby,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and lastly, “Adore,” several of us in my newly-adopted section wondered aloud whether the show was really over this time.

Piano & a Microphone is the perfect way to experience Prince and his music through a different medium, stripped down to its bare bones and still revealing elements previously unexpressed. Vocally, the man was fire. His handling of Bob Marley’s classic “Waiting in Vain” was sensual, sexy, and intoxicating, and he proved throughout the show that his falsetto is still the tightest in the game. I still would have loved to have seen the show at the Paramount Theatre last week, a far more intimate setting which I think is probably better suited for this kind of performance. Still, even in such a huge space it felt like we were all hanging out in his living room, eating pancakes and sipping tea.

—Rhonda Nicole

Rhonda Nicole is a completely biased, lifelong Prince fan, the Managing Editor for SoulTrain.com, a member of The Recording Academy (The Grammys) and ASCAP, a soul singer/songwriter, music journalist, blogger, and curator of the BohemeRockstar Music Blog (IG @BohemeRockstar), splitting her time between the Bay Area and LA. Download her EP Nuda Veritas on CDBaby and iTunes, keep up with her new music at soundcloud.com/rhonda-nicole, follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @wildhoneyrock, and dig her musical musings at rhondanicole.com.

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