.Live Review: Prince at the DNA Lounge, San Francisco

[Image via Twitter]

“You know how many hits I got? We could be here all night.”
Ears ringing. Laying on the couch. Can’t sleep.
“Sign ‘o’ the Times” riff stuck in head on endless repeat.
Still thinking about the silhouette of his hair against the blue lights.
THWACK! at the screen door. What the…?
Oh, right. It’s the next day’s newspaper.
A steamrolled body, an obliterated brain, both riding out an adrenaline buzz: this is how I finally went to bed last night after Prince’s final show of a two-night, four-show stand at the small, 800-capacity DNA Lounge in San Francisco.
Was it worth it, you ask? Tickets were $275, the wait in line was two hours, about 50 line-jumpers cut in front of us drinking and smoking weed, and as a half-naked guy rollerskated up and down Harrison St., the doors finally opened. Inside, there was a strict no-photo policy during the show, and it was impossible to move—people packed in shoulder-to-shoulder—while idling out another hour-long wait.
Prince finally took the stage at 11:40pm. . . . and Lord, it was fucking incredible.
“San Francisco! Are you with me?!”
There’re more than a few reasons for why this show was among the best I’ve ever seen, and being able to stand 12 feet away from the godliness of Prince is the obvious one. Seeing the man’s every movement and facial expression, witnessing him staring right at you, being able to hear him when he sings off-mic… these intimate moments are the justifications of paying $275 to see Prince (as SF Weekly‘s Ian S. Port discusses here.)
The DNA Lounge is a favorite of Prince’s—he played there in 1993 and 1997. (Squint your eyes inside, and the venue is a dead ringer for Minneapolis’ First Avenue circa Purple Rain.) His current band, 3rd Eye Girl, is like some howling dragonfire Hendrix-Sabbath-Boris altar to fuzz and funk, a three-piece band that allowed Prince to shred on guitar nonstop. This is key: Prince is truly Top 5 Greatest Guitarists of All Time material. You know that video of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that everyone posts, with Tom Petty and George Harrison’s kid and some other tired guys strumming slowly, where Prince comes out in that red hat and just destroys on guitar? Seriously, it was like that last night for the entire hour-and-45-minute show.
Out of all the four DNA shows, last night’s late-show setlist was the best, especially if you’re into old songs (who isn’t?), especially from Sign ‘o’ the Times (yes, please). Full versions of “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Let’s Work,” “U Got the Look,” “Purple Rain,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” “Forever in My Life,” “Adore,” “Bambi” and “Sign ‘o’ the Times,” as well as the encore medley of WhenDovesCryAlphabetStPopLifeHousequakeIWouldDie4U etc. etc. (Setlist below.)
But most important was Prince utterly enjoying the hell out of himself. For “Forever in My Life,” he played a swampy, slapping Claypoolesque bass with a coy grin; for “Purple Rain,” which melted the entire building with just one opening chord, he delivered the “HONEYIKNOWIKNOWIKNOWIKNOW times are changing” line with bone-chilling intensity; in “Adore,” he lowered his voice quasi-seductive-Barry-White-like to sing “when we be makin’ love”; he made all those crazy monster faces when he finished off a meaty one-handed solo; he guided his band with miniscule hand gestures, such that they always kept an eye on him to wait for the changes; he twisted his impossibly skinny body diagonally, backwards, up and down; he made eye contact with people in the crowd and blew kisses, and all things told delivered a goddamn show.
The girl next to me, who announced loudly “I’m wearing purple underwear!,” was losing her mind with the rest of us.
“Someone gonna get pregnant up in here!”
Can you name any other musician who WANTS to play as much as Prince? Even Springsteen, the consummate salesman, sometimes goes through the motions (check the lagging, lackadaisical tempo in live versions of “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road”) while others, like Jay-Z, make it their trademark to appear as if they don’t want to be on stage at all (check: every live performance since 2001 except maybe this one from election night, 2008). Can you imagine what Michael Jackson’s 50-day residency at the O2 Arena would have been like? Can you imagine it being as natural, as passionate, as urgent as Prince is every single night? Of course not—it would have been the very calculated result of months of planning, rehearsals and fine-tuning.
But Prince? This is what Prince does, people. He shows up last night and sings as perfectly as he’s ever sung, plays the shit out of every instrument in range, he twists his guitar pegs to tune his strings mid-solo, he turns around and mixes his own monitor board mid-song, he plays guitar behind his head, he gyrates his pelvis and commands singalongs and throws out his guitar picks and plays, plays, plays, all in a day’s work—except it isn’t work, it’s normal life, the same way you or I walk down the street or buy milk or complain about the internet.
I was reminded of a quote about Prince from some old liner notes: “Music pours out of him without any rhyme or reason,” Alan Leeds, Prince’s old tour manager, once wrote, “heedless of clocks, calendars or environments.”
“Is there a curfew?”
As for the new songs from Prince’s upcoming album Plectrum Electrum, they’re actually really great, lifting riffs from Edgar Winter (“Frankenstein”) and Led Zeppelin (“The Ocean”) and benefiting from a long steeping in Hendrix. (Again: This band is unreal, and lead guitarist Donna Grantis nearly one-upped the boss.) But when Prince is in the zone like he was last night, it doesn’t matter what he plays. You can be at a Prince show during “FIXURLIFEUP” and waste your time thinking of older songs you wish he would play; this is like watching SNL and expecting Amy and Tina to show up. You just have to roll with the program. Prince does not make this easy, and actually exacerbates the desire to hear his old hits because he still looks exactly like he did when those hits came out; you see him and think, “Well, he’s clearly 29 years old. ‘Raspberry Beret’ is up next.” (Compare these two Grammy appearances, from 1985 and from 2013.)
Scanning the crowd at the DNA, you saw yuppies, drunks, hipsters, married couples, freaks, businessmen, all the usual types, all decked out. I remembered seeing Prince at the huge HP Pavilion in San Jose in 2004 and wishing I’d had a camera just to take photos of his fans. But that night, I also sat way up in the corner of the upper deck—far, far away from the floor—and vowed if ever I had the chance to get to one of these small club shows, I’d jump on it, despite the occasional scorn they invoke. (In the Bay Area, Prince has played at places like Ruby Skye and the Fillmore, where in 2004, Rob Harvilla panned the formless, meandering show featuring, ugh, Najee: “The music itself? Ehhhh. Five out of ten. Would’ve made a fabulous Wednesday night bargain showcase at Yoshi’s.”)
Last night, inside the tiny DNA Lounge, with this great band, with a top-notch setlist and all that guitar playing, it was more than a concert. More than a dance party. It was a communion.
Setlist below, via Dr. Funkenberry:
Let’s Go Crazy
Let’s Work ->
U Got The Look
She’s Always In My Hair
Forever In My Life
Purple Rain ->
I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man
Plectrum Electrum
I Like It There

Sign ‘O’ The Times
Hot Thing (snippet)
Nasty Girl (snippet)
When Doves Cry
I Would Die 4 U
Single Ladies (snippet)
A Love Bizzare
Pop Life
Alphabet St. (snippet)
The Most Beautiful Girl In The World (snippet)
Pheremone (snippet)
Xtraloveable (snippet)
Mr. Goodnight (snippet)


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