Prince @ United Center: A case of the Mondays

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As if answering some kind of Bat Signal — perhaps there’s a spotlight on top of the Hancock tower that throws a big purple Prince symbol into the sky — pop megastar Prince swooped into to town this week, bringing the party — and a few party fouls.

Near the end of his Monday night concert at United Center — the first of three this week at the arena (plus three late-night shows at House of Blues, read on) in conjunction with the local Rebuild the Dream charity — his crack NPG band started vamping into “Purple Rain.” But Prince just had to explain his purple presence.

“Chicago, I don’t want to preach,” he lied, “but we need to love one another.” He continued his homily, implicitly acknowledging the city’s rough summer and his reason for being here, like some musical medicine man. “These are hard times, and they’re gonna get harder. I don’t need to be here; I want to be here.” Earlier, as he was getting the party started, he instructed the sold-out crowd to “take your mind off all the problems outside.”

Not hard to do when presented such extremes of showmanship and oddity. Throughout a two-hour show Monday night, Prince, his five-piece band, his three backup singers (who sang a lot more than backup), his 11-piece horn section and his in-the-round, Prince symbol-shaped stage jumped to a nearly nonstop beat. Multitasking as bandleader, singer and all too infrequent guitarist, Prince’s divided attention resulted in an erratic show, one that eventually boiled over with energy and gusto — and then went suddenly cool.

Wearing a half-white, half-black suit and high-heeled boots, Prince did his best James Brown (or Cab Calloway) — that balancing act between singing and dancing at center stage while still controlling every heave and ho of the band, as if each player were a tightly stringed marionette. The slightest flick of his wrist brought the drummer down on his snare; a sharp, sidelong glance shifted them all into the next song. He ran crowd control, too, constantly shouting for the house lights to come up so he could see the crowd — or, really, so the crowd could be seen, so we’d sing when he said to sing (“Raspberry Beret”) and clap when he said to clap (“Musicology”). Audience participation was a high priority on this royal’s agenda.

Because he wasn’t doing much else. Starting off with some fancy footwork, Prince devolved into a cheerleader sashaying from side to side, ignoring his guitar and his piano. He finally strapped on the guitar for the third act and “Take Me With U,” but he wasn’t feeling it. The sound was muddy, it didn’t last. He even ceded the instrumental solo in “Purple Rain” to one of the sax players.

Reminding us frequently of the breadth of his catalog — “There’s too many hits!” he boasted three times, and truthfully because he didn’t get around to playing several chestnuts — Prince’s set ran the gamut from his own hits, those he wrote for others (“Nothing Compares 2 U,” “Shhh”) and at least one Chicago tip of the hat (Curtis Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” was squeezed into one of the many medleys). Once started, the band didn’t stop playing for the first 45 minutes, till Prince brought things down into a slower, bluesier, breath-catching second act (complete with his backup ladies, lead by the bald and bold Shelby J, taking lead on an overly long, gospel-infused version of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel”).

For the first encore, Prince could be seen returning to the stage in the dark — he seemed to always be in the dark during this haphazard production — and striding to the piano. He then left the stage again after saying, “Y’all ain’t ready for this.” When sufficient cheering convinced him to return, he kicked through “Kiss” and then stationed himself at the piano and synth deck. He proceeded to play DJ, punching out sounds and samples from his hit parade, sometimes singing a verse and chorus, sometimes just teasing — “When Doves Cry,” “Darling Nikki,” “Love Bazaar,” “I Would Die 4 U,” on and on like Madeon.

Then he was done. He said goodbye. People started leaving, and workers started sweeping confetti from the catwalks. But the house lights stayed down, so remaining fans kept cheering, expecting more. After nearly an hour, Prince reportedly returned and gamely ran through two more songs before taking off for his next expected gig: a midnight show at the House of Blues.

Although he was expected at the HOB show — but not guaranteed — he was a no-show. A no-performer, anyway. Fans, as you might guess, were purple with rage. Read Dave Hoekstra’s report here.

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