Where's the Cream?

Not just an artist, mind you, but "The Artist." That's what the 9,000 tickets said. You have to admit, no matter how deep you're into his (His?) music, that's just a little pretentious. "Everybody always asks me what your name is now," said The Artist Who Performed at America West Arena Last Week. Sashaying across the stage in a jumpsuit to match his violet-and-lime-green piano, he flicked his head to face the half-empty arena floor.

"Just call me 'Mr. Happy.'"
Fine. But when it comes to scalpers, Mr. Happy's evil twin takes over. That would be Mr. Grumpy, who designed and demanded such a labyrinthine ticketing process for the April 28 sneak-attack concert in Phoenix that, by the time he came on stage at 9:10 (scheduled start was 8 p.m.), most fans had already spent four or five hours in line, spread over two days.

Accurate ticket information for Mr. Happy's Monday-night concert wasn't widely available until the Friday before. Tickets went on sale Saturday afternoon at the America West Arena box office and all Zia Record Exchange stores. The line outside Tempe Zia started forming at seven in the morning, and by noon it was several blocks long. Which was nothing compared to the line outside America West Arena the night of the show.

Here was the deal: The tickets were all $40, all general admission. Five hours before the concert was supposed to start, there was already a line in front of the arena. Presumably, everyone wanted to be close to the stage, but, for some reason, only a few hundred people were eventually allowed onto the arena floor, when there was room for twice as many. It was torturous to be crammed in the seats and see that much dance floor going to waste.

Anyway--by 7:30, the line outside the arena was longer than any I've ever seen, even for the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland in July. It took me almost 20 minutes to walk from the line's start--a gateway of police tape guarded by gargoyles in cop suits a few hundred yards from the box office--to its end at the edge of the railroad tracks just past the intersection of Central and Jackson. The line wrapped all the way around the arena, a human circle with a four-block radius. Forty bucks on Saturday got you a voucher that could be exchanged for an actual ticket the night of the show--but only once you were inside the security perimeter. Thus the line. And once ticket was in hand, you had to enter the arena immediately. All that just to hassle scalpers. Crazy. There are easier ways to slap down scalpers that show more respect for fans--releasing a large block of tickets late on the day of a sold-out show is just one. In any case, the ticket ordeal made a promise of grandeur the show didn't keep.

"I've been doing this since 1982," Mr. Happy said early on, "and I'm about to get funky in this motherfucker." Unfortunately, most of the songs he performed during the two-hour concert were written after 1995, when his songwriting skills clearly began to dull. He opened with "Jam of the Year" and moved quickly to a stunning version of "Purple Rain," giving the capacity crowd a taste of what could have been. That sweet, sad ballad was an epiphany--with thousands of voices singing the chorus, the vibe inside the arena was intimate and electric with emotion. Mr. Happy was only two songs into his show, and he had the crowd. You could feel it. We were his to do with as he wished, but instead of taking us over the top with a balanced show of the strongest new material fleshed out with killer, older hits, Mr. Happy just left us hanging.

His worst tease was the short, tacked-together versions of "Raspberry Beret" and "Take Me With U" that he busted out near the end of the show, Beach Boys-medley style. Such chop jobs are indefensibly weak, because they simultaneously acknowledge that the artist--sorry, The Artist--knows most people came to the show hoping to hear the hits, and that he doesn't really care to play them. "If I Was Your Girlfriend" got the full treatment, and was excellent. By comparison, songs off the new triple album Emancipation didn't fall into as deep and slinky a groove. Which is too bad, because Prince--there, I said it--is probably the last of the great funk-R&B songwriters/bandleaders. James Brown. Sly Stone. George Clinton. Prince. The lineage is clear.

It's not that his touring band--now called the New Power Generation--isn't still a monster. It is. And Prince himself still plays like one of the most underrated guitarists ever. And he still has dance moves that smoke Michael Jackson on a good night. And he still nails the orgasmic high notes. And he still spreads the honey of sex-you-up charm, and he still commands the stage. But, pointblank, his new shit is not as good. Not even. "We want Prince!" the crowd chanted before the show and during the six-minute wait for his one and only encore. "We want Prince!"

Instead, both times, it got The Artist.

--David Holthouse

David Holthouse is now wired.
The Web site is Mothership. The address is www.phoenixnewtimes.com/extra/holt/index.html. The options are myriad (multigenre criticism, archives, rave data, freak links).

 
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