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Playing God

Don't utter his name in vain. The Artist--or whatever he chooses to call himself--is once again part of a revolution. The Minneapolitan maestro has moved into a brave new world, and he sends a message: For fans, The Artist still wants to party until 1999 with his new concert tour. For the people, he pronounces peace and equality along with love and education for children. For himself, he brandishes freedom by defying the established music industry.

By now, the former Prince has established an unmatchable reputation as a control freak, so his pulling the plug on the life-supporting industry machine should come as no surprise. He's been described as "rebellious," "unpredictable" and "arrogant," and these terms are probably as familiar as the symbol that represents his name.

But The Artist has merely committed a sort of entrepreneurial euthanasia--a longtime suffering put to an end. As a teenage Prince, he signed with major-label giant Warner Bros., back in 1978. During the course of 18 years and 23 releases, the singer-songwriter became increasingly unhappy with the label. Trapped by contractual agreements, The Artist made his statement by painting the word "slave" on his face. He left it there for all to see and continued to perform more or less as a pawn until the contract terms were complete.

Moving on to EMI Records, he wished to establish a joint venture with a major and his own label, NPG (New Power Generation). Seemingly unrestrained for the first time in years, he released Emancipation, a three-hour, three-CD set. With a much more lucrative deal penned, the ex-Prince is enjoying royalties that surpass earnings from Purple Rain.

The Artist's stairway to heaven became an escalator when EMI folded earlier this year. Now, with the powers that be out of the way, the Godfather is truly the ruler of his own destiny.

He plans to sell future releases solely on the Internet. Through his toll-free number and Web site, fans can place orders for the upcoming four-disc set titled Crystal Ball. The collection will contain underground and bootleg classics. The $50 set is packaged in an actual crystal ball, a Plexiglas case, but won't be manufactured until 100,000 preorders are received.

Basically, he has decided that his success will not be defined by charts, award shows or platinum sales. Taking in $50 on each sale, he figures, "I don't need 2 go platinum; at the bank, I'm platinum at 50,000 copies."

Of course, the career risks are great. Without a traditional music-industry publicity campaign behind him, his new recordings could easily slip under the radar screen of the masses. On the other hand, if The Artist does indeed triumph, he will be the Moses of music marketing--a savior parting the red tape who will lead musicians to freedom.

In an interview conducted online, he declared, "Being unsigned 2 a major label is the most rewarding, least constricting way of life I've led in 20 years. Everything I do now is on the spur of the moment, which allows me freedom 2 better follow my own divine design."

Well, you can question all you want how "divine" this man's design is. Fact is, The Artist is a star--self-proclaimed, and echoed by everyone within his orbit. He loves the limelight, and he's got it so licked, it will never sour.

This pintsize visionary hearkened to the millennium and has sustained his own career long enough to actually escort us into it. Sure, we remember the Batman soundtrack, butt-out yellow trousers and a few recent studio shortcomings. But, so what? Besides, have you seen his show? If not, let it be known that The Artist, like the Men in Black, will make you forget what you don't need to remember.

When it gets down to it, nobody really cares about his few missteps or later releases that have fallen from grace. The Artist's two-hour set on October 25 at Desert Sky Pavilion captivated every audience member. All types, colors, incomes and preferences; this mixed crowd came to party. Fans were asked if they knew the titles of some of the newer material. They did not and did not care--happy to resume their dancing with mouths agape.

And the gods smiled. Well, at least The Artist did. Probably because Desert Sky was bursting at the seams and spilled many people into the lawn areas. Even those "seats" were $35, while those seated closer to the phenomenon dropped as much as $65 into the collection plate.

The night's warm-up act was Larry Graham and his Graham Central Station. They tried to take everyone higher with their "Proud Mary" routines, but for many it was a time for rest-room visits and refreshments.

About 9:30, the lights went out, and an automated woman's voice announced the beginning of the "Jam of the Year." The ominous intro music began, and everyone stood as a giant "symbol" was raised for the stage backdrop. Then, the infamous guitar lick from "Kiss" was heard, but that was all; it was just a tease. Likewise, a lick from "When Doves Cry" played momentarily. First onstage was the New Power Generation, and the band kicked into "Jam of the Year," a track from Emancipation.

Finally, from deep center stage, a trademark falsetto scream pierced the Desert Sky, and the crowd went crazy. On a staircase, under beams of light, The Artist came down. Dressed in red, close-knit stretch pants and a red jacket with white furred edges, he looked like a pimped-out Santa Claus.

Within the first minute, he stood atop his piano, shook his ass at the crowd and outdanced a choreographer's convention. Spinning like a top, with effortless James Brown splits, he motioned to the crowd with his hands pushing up above his head. "Raise the roof up!"

And he saw that it was good. Every single mortal in the audience did exactly as he was told. A sea of hands was pushed toward the roof (lawn seats pushed to the heavens). "Let's Work," he shouted as the band cut into a classic slice of Controversy.

Everyone became a full-time employee as The Artist inspired 100 percent crowd participation. Sitting atop a bass cabinet, he pretended to file his nails while guitarist Mike Scott stepped to the stage's edge with an invigorating solo. Back at center stage, The Artist feigned the lighting, smoking and stamping-out of a cigarette with all movements perfectly choreographed. The band didn't miss a beat. It musically accented his every move with perfection just before "Let's Work" ground to a halt.

Four songs into the set, the crowd was awarded with a purple testament. The showman strapped on a white-and-gold, "symbol"-shaped guitar, strumming the opening chords to "Purple Rain." Of course, after a fantastic guitar solo from the maestro himself, the audience swayed and sang along.

But for The Artist, cleanliness is not necessarily next to godliness. Forget what you've heard, because, despite all of the new spiritualism, a dirty mind (and mouth) are still prevalent in his show. Bathed in red light, The Artist mopped up the stage with his sexual gyrations and gymnastics during the metaphorical "Little Red Corvette," the song that put him on the map to stay.

Still, he's pure musician. He performed a wondrous piano medley, teasing out the tunes "Darling Nikki," "Diamonds and Pearls" and "The Beautiful Ones." On "Facedown," the musician handled the bass like a hedonistic Hendrix by playing it behind his head or with one leg wrapped over the neck.

In fact, The Artist played his four-string almost as well as NPG bassist Rhonda Smith. She showed herself to be most accomplished in low-end theory. The goddess played at least four separate and technically diverse solos with all the sweetness you'd expect from a tall, voluptuous package of brown sugar.

"Do Me Baby," another song from Controversy, began rich with instrumental solos from the entire band, allowing The Artist a sabbatical. He returned to sing and squeal its ultrasexy lyrics into the ear of every woman in attendance. He continued to elevate moods with a spiritual version of Joan Osborne's "One of Us," his classic "If I Was Your Girlfriend," and climactic performances of "Take Me With U" and "Raspberry Beret."

After 10 minutes of encore rumbling from the crowd, NPG band members returned to strike up the band. Once the groove was solidified, the man of the cloth returned--this time dressed in a gold outfit with high collars like a lord of vampires. He waved a crystal cane, and random audience members were allowed onto his stage. The chosen ones were commanded to dance behind The Artist as he performed "Baby I'm a Star."

Clearing the stage, the former Prince performed his prophetic party jam "1999," and it's hard to believe that it was recorded 15 years ago. The frenzied crowd chanted every lyric. But soon, a flash of showering gold confetti marked the end of the "Jam of the Year." It was 11:30 p.m., and The Artist had blessed an entire congregation with one voice and an almighty performance.


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