In a career filled with idiosyncratic twists and turns, Prince made one of his more baffling choices at Madison Square Garden Saturday night, the first New York City date of his Welcome 2 America tour — he actually gave the people what they wanted.
While many of the prolific star’s past shows have veered into unfamiliar territory filled with obscurities and lengthy funk instrumental jams, this one was a crowd-pleasing compendium of ’80s hits, many of them culled from his landmark Purple Rain and 1999 discs. And while he comically groused at one point by muttering, “Too many hits,” he played them with a freshness and ferocity that thrilled the sold-out crowd.
From “Baby I’m a Star” to “Kiss,” he re-explored his vintage catalog as if playing the songs for the first time. And while the evening was short on spectacle, it was long on musical excitement, with the 52-year-old star displaying the charisma and stamina of his youth while backed by a band that couldn’t have been any tighter.
The audience roared at the opening chords of each familiar number, from “The Beautiful Ones” (performed with the accompaniment of a sexy ballet dancer) to “Let’s Go Crazy” to “Delirious” to “Raspberry Beret” to “Nothing Compares 2 U” to “Purple Rain.” The only cover songs on display, Sylvester’s “Dance (Disco Heat)” and The Time’s “Cool,” were melded seamlessly into the proceedings.
Performing on a stage shaped like his trademark glyph symbol, the star seemed in excellent spirits, striking guitar god poses for his frequent solos and frequently breaking into his trademark dance workouts. He reserved his most stunning moves for “Kiss,” delivering a precisely calibrated routine of hip and shoulder-popping break-dance style contortions.
Former collaborator Sheila E. was brought out to thunderous applause for a duet on “U Got the Look” and a lengthy solo on “The Glamorous Life” that allowed Prince time for a costume change.
They also collaborated for the encore, “A Love Bizarre,” with Prince inviting seemingly every celebrity in attendance to join him onstage. The disparate group — including Tavis Smiley, Spike Lee, Naomi Campbell, Jamie Foxx, Sinbad, John Leguizamo and others — happily danced with abandon, although the sight of Whoopi Goldberg and author Cornell West boogieing together was surely one of the stranger things ever seen at the Garden.
As is his wont, Prince picked one of his musical inspirations as the opening act. On this show. it was Graham Central Station, whose leader, bass player Larry Graham, commented that it was his first time performing at the venue since he appeared as part of Sly & the Family Stone. The headliner briefly joined them for a raucous medley of that group’s hits, including such classics as “Family Affair” and “Everyday People.”