I still remember my first Prince concert. Even though I had been a fan since a kid, it wasn’t until 2002 when I got my first taste of Prince’s live performance. He was touring around the continent as part of his One Night Alone… Tour, backed by a reincarnation of the New Power Generation that included the ultra-talented trumpet player Maceo Parker, drummer John Blackwell, keyboardist Renato Neto, and bassist Rhonda Smith. It was an intimate performance at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa – 3 hours of just Prince and NPG, who focused on re-introducing funk to the staid capital city. That show is one of my top-3 concerts of all-time and possibly #1.

In the 13 years since, I’ve seen Prince a handful of times, but none matched the magic, intimacy, and raw emotion of that show (granted, I didn’t attend the reportedly epic Montreal JazzFest performances back in 2011). For instance, his Welcome 2… Tour seemed overproduced and hastened, as he played snippets of classics and his immense talents were masked by quick guitar jams and Prince seemingly wanting to play more of a supporting role to his backing band. The shows were full of energy, but they were made for mass appeal (they did take place in huge arenas).

Fast forward to his latest tour, HITNRUN, which is a series of “pop-up” shows that Prince is playing across the globe. For the Montreal date, the show was announced last Wednesday; tickets went on sale Thursday; and the spectacle took place Saturday at the Bell Centre. Nonetheless, all of the nearly 9,000 tickets were sold, demonstrating the drawing power of the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame inductee.

Unlike the last tour to pass through these parts, this was a much more intimate affair. While the lighting, as expected, was tremendous, there was no elaborate stage nor any fancy bells and whistles. It was just Prince, his talented backing band – 3RDEYEGIRL, three incredible backup singers (including Liv Warfield), and a horn section. For 2.5 hours, the audience was entertained to a fabulous set.

There were three notable things from the five-act show. First, we often associate Prince as an entertainer and showman, which he is among the best in the business. He’s established a brand around his name, his appearance, and even the colour he often dons. But we forget that he’s one of the most talented and gifted musicians not just of his generation but any generation. His skills with the guitar are impeccable, demonstrated during the performance’s opening number “Wow”, taken from his collaborative album Plectrumelectrum with 3RDEYEGIRL, and the third song “Guitar”, from his 2014 Art Official Age.

He’s a first-rate pianist, which he showed on the powerful combination of “Diamonds and Pearls” and “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” that opened the 3rd act of the show. He was flawless as he took the keys, like a jazz musician playing in a smokey bar to 10 people. He then put his DJing skills to work, a trait that often gets overlooked. This skill to create infectious beats and sounds was put on full display during the show’s second act, as Prince came on stage by himself and opened with a brilliant and hypnotic, downtempo, electronic version of “When Doves Cry” that continued on with “Sign ‘☮’ the Times” and “Hot Thing” (at which point some of the audience was invited to dance).

His vocal range is second to none. From tenor to baritone to falsetto, Prince, despite being 56-years old (soon to be 57), still hits every note. While he doesn’t sing every high note (he received assistance from Liv Warfield on occasion as well as the audience), he showcased his range on “Diamonds and Pearls” and, of course, “Kiss”, that closed the third act.

The second aspect that stood out was the diversity of the show, and, thus, how some classics were reinvented. When thinking of his hits, R&B and pop immediately come to mind. This show, though, hit almost every genre possible with the exceptions of country, folk, and hip hop. It started off as an intense rock show with Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL jamming and getting people into a frenzy before slowing it down into a midtempo thumper version of “Let’s Go Crazy”.

The tone then changed into one that was all about the funk. Even the classic “Raspberry Beret” was given an extra dose, and Prince and his fellow musicians’ cover of Michael Jackson’s classic “Don’t Stop ‘Til Get Enough” was funk-ified. Wild Cherry’s classic “Play That Funky Music” was also provided with a lot more funkiness than the original, which was aided by the addition of the excellent horn section.

Soul was quite prominent within the set. Liv Warfield sang a song of her own (unfortunately I can’t find the title) and “Little Red Corvette” was given a mind-blowing makeover with Prince and his band’s soulful interpretation. It started off subtly, but you could hear the first few notes of the song before Prince went into a slow groove. Absolutely brilliant.

Some of the songs stayed relatively true to their originals, such as “Controversy” (although it was extra cool in this performance), “Nothing Compares 2 U” (which Prince seemed quite emotional after singing it), and the always show-stopping “Purple Rain”. However, it was a night of reinvention, reinterpretation, and reimagination.

Part of the credit could go to the musicians with whom Prince has surrounded himself, which takes us to the third standout characteristic of the performance. This shouldn’t be surprising since Prince has long asked gifted musicians to play with him, whether on tour or on his albums. His main backing band, 3RDEYEGIRL, are three gifted women with different backgrounds. Guitarist Donna Grantis (a.k.a. Elektra) mesmerized the audience with her ferocity and precision with the strings not to mention with a stage presence that was only held back by Prince’s appearance. Hailing from the Toronto area (Mississauga to be precise) and having studied at McGill University in Montreal, Grantis, before joining Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL, was establishing a reputation within the blues community as a force and an up-and-coming musician. She fronted her own band, The Donna Grantis Electric Blues Band, for a time and toured around the world (hear some of the music here).

Bassist Ida Kristine Nielsen might be the most understated of the three, but the rhythms she laid down were impeccable. They weren’t just the standard bass lines one would hear, but often mixing in different chords midstream to create a different vibe to the track (e.g., taking “Kiss” into a much more classic funk direction). Nielsen is from Denmark and has been playing the bass since she was 16. She’s the longest standing member of Prince’s various backing bands, including performing as part of NPG. In 2007, she released a solo album under the moniker Bassida, a funk-blues album that you can hear here.

Like Grantis and Nielsen, Hannah Welton was a child prodigy. Playing the drums since she was 12 years, the Chicago-via-Louisville resident adopted her style after Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, which is speed, power, and often controlled chaos. Her understanding of melodies is also key for a performer like Prince because subtlety is often the best course of action. Her talents have been widely known within the industry for years, and she recently was on the cover of DRUM!. If you would like to know more about Welton, check out her website.

And while I could go about each of the band members, I’ll finish with the amazing Liv Warfield. With a voice and range of Aretha Franklin, Warfield often took on the lead vocal chores while Prince played his guitar or with the crowd. Besides her own track, she took the lead role during “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, replicating Michael Jackson’s falsetto almost to a tee. Warfield is a Soul Train Award winner, and she has released two albums, including 2014’s The Unexpected. A handful of her tracks can be found on SoundCloud or just pick it up at iTunes.

There aren’t many shows that I say to myself that I would like to relive. Saturday night’s performance, though, is one of those exceptions. From the remarkable and often overlooked talents of Prince to the immense gifts of his supporting cast to the reimagination of the classics, the show was memorable. Does it match the 2002 performance? Not quite, but it was remarkable nonetheless. When and where is the next HITNRUN, pop-up concert?

Full setlist of the show can be found here.

prince-3rdeyegirl-cindy ord-getty images

Photo by Cindy Ord, Getty Images

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