MILWAUKEE – Prince opened his show at Marcus Amphitheater during Summerfest on Thursday night with a snappy video montage of his brilliant career. The homage to himself, however, ended with Alicia Keys’ overly gushing induction speech when Prince entered the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame recently.
Few performers would dare shower themselves in such praise, but Prince is one of the most rare acts: From the moment he arrives on stage, he owns it. He’s all swagger and confidence as if he knows, beyond all doubt, that the crowd is blessed when he’s ready to groove.
Sure enough, Prince, who turned 46 this month, delivered the goods.
For 2 hours, he offered classic hits, quality new material, a powerhouse eight-piece band and jam-happy tunes. It was funky and fun. Prince’s music could make a statue dance.
A six-song, mid-show acoustic segment served as a clever change of pace. He took old favorites, such as “Little Red Corvette,” “Raspberry Beret” and the underrated “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” and fueled each with a fresh and casual approach.
During the acoustic portion, Prince also seemed to enjoy toying with the crowd, which often sang along. Once preoccupied with fighting the business side of show business, Prince now appears content with his career.
His new album, “Musicology,” was given free to fans as they entered the amphitheater. The marketing ploy allows the CD to climb charts under the guise of part of the concert ticket price. (Billboard has since altered its rules about what counts as an “album sold,” but Prince’s maneuver is unaffected through a grandfather clause.)
Prince knows he faces a substantial task to reach radio and MTV airplay with a new generation unfamiliar with “Purple Rain.” It’s a shame. Thursday’s version of “Musicology’s” “Life ‘O’ the Party” belonged alongside Prince’s best in-concert songs.
After opening with “Musicology,” the sleek Prince rattled off a fan-friendly string of Gen X and young baby boomer favorites: “Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “When Doves Cry” and “Baby I’m a Star.” If that quartet of tunes doesn’t rattle your bones, Summerfest isn’t for you.
This is a relatively “clean” Prince, too. Though not an angel on stage, Prince skipped his most raunchy material. “Love,” Prince told the crowd and paused, “it’s the only four-letter word you’ll hear on stage tonight.” Prince even self-edited a profane word from one line.
His songwriting is often mentioned after his other talents. But he’s sharp. The single “Sign O the Times” came out in 1987 but hardly seems dated. On “Kiss,” he substituted “Sex and the City” for “Dynasty” to keep it up to date.
The show, though, suffered from logistical problems. The 7 p.m. scheduled start time was skipped. Entrance gates opened late and after skipping any opening act, the concert started at 8:55 p.m. A few instrumental jams were self-indulgent and it was odd for Prince to let a member of his entourage sing “Soul Man.” And pity poor band member Maceo Parker, a legend in his own right, who wore a ridiculous graduation gown during one tune to showcase “old school” style.
Hey, Prince makes mistakes.
Nothing stops him, though. When Summerfest’s annual opening-night fireworks display exploded in the sky, Prince simply played throughout the loud half-hour display, largely by playing a seemingly endless version of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
For the encore, Prince saved “Purple Rain” and gave it his typical epic treatment.
He knew it would be the crowning touch to a dazzling show.