For much of Prince’s career, he was a regular on Detroit stages. There was a 35-year span between his first show here (March 1980, opening for Rick James at Cobo Arena) and his last (April 2015, Fox Theatre).
The Free Press reviewed many of the performances. Here are excerpts of some of the notable concerts, stretching from the early years to his final Motor City show:
Opener of six-show-stand, Nov. 30, 1982, Masonic Temple
When he was just beginning to generate controversy a few years ago, much of his routine centered around his bikini shorts, leg warmers and high heels.
Now he knows he can keep his pants on and communicate more with gestures of hands and hips and looks than he can with mere exposure. He throws himself against speakers, collapses to his knees, talks about the G spot and explicitly strokes his microphone stand. In his most theatric gambit, he returns to the catwalk, watches as a brass bed is brought up to the level of the walk, doffs his shirt and simulates lovemaking in silhouette.
None of this would work if Prince’s music didn’t have a consistent kick to it and if flashes of critical thought – a rare commodity in pop music -– didn’t show through.
First of seven sold-out nights to open the Purple Rain tour, Nov. 4, 1984, Joe Louis Arena
They stood from the second the arena went dark, and they screamed at the first chair-shaking synthesizer chord. By the time Prince, standing atop a bank of speakers, intoned, “Detroit – my name is Prince, and I’ve come to play with you,” they were ready to accept anything.
So they forgave the muddy sound on the opening number, “Let’s Go Crazy,” and instead screamed for the confetti that dropped from the ceiling, for the well-rehearsed choreography of Prince’s five-piece band, the Revolution, and for the Minneapolis-born star’s high-energy stage presence.
By the time the sound – from the largest speaker setup ever used for an arena rock concert – was adjusted during a shortened version of “Delirious,” Prince and the Revolution were rewarding their fans with a flashy light show, costume changes, an elevated purple bathtub and a repertoire heavy on songs from the chart-topping “Purple Rain” soundtrack album.
Birthday party show, June 7, 1986, Cobo Arena
A grinning Prince took the microphone himself. “Does that mean I can come back?” the Minneapolis native asked as the crowd shook the building with cheers and stamping. “Last year we had a party, and it was fun, but it wasn’t as fun as this. … Detroit is like my hometown – I mean that. I could’ve stayed in my town and partied, but I wanted to come down and party with you.”
And that he did, proving that his new soul revue-style concert – a slick, energetic, tightly choreographed ’80s update of the old Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Ike & Tina Turner and Sly & the Family Stone shows – worked as well in an arena as it did in at the Masonic and other theaters in Minneapolis, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Act 1 Tour, April 1, 1993, Fox Theatre
Though his versatility is widely acknowledged, it’s still hard not to marvel as Prince slides from decidedly prurient come-hithers such as “Sexy MF” to the smooth crooning of “Love 2 the 9’s” to the rock ‘n’ roll guitar heroics of the unreleased rave-up “Peach.” It’s a rare kind of diversity, explaining an equally broad and racially mixed audience that ranged from suit-and-tie adults to youths attired in the trendiest of fashions.
He is funky, yes. But there’s more to it than that, which on Thursday let the long-absent Prince reclaim his stature as a preeminent pop showman.
Love 4 One Another tour, Jan. 13, 1997, State Theatre
After a long and successful battle to get out of a disputed contract with Warner Brothers Records, this current 14-city jaunt though small venues is Prince’s self-proclaimed liberation tour – and a chance to reconnect with fans.
Prince may be pop’s ultimate egomaniac, but Monday was one night when he looked eager to share his obsessions with the world.
“Freedom is a beautiful thing,” he told the crowd early on, and he looked ready to prove it, bounding across the stage and including the balcony in his playful flirtations. He and his tight five-member band locked into a near-continuous groove for the entire night, plucking mostly familiar tunes from a career repertoire that numbers into the hundreds of songs.
Musicology tour, June 20, 2004, Palace of Auburn Hills
One reason this “Musicology” tour has garnered ample attention is that Prince has vowed to retire many of the Top 40 songs that made him a superstar two decades ago. If he’s honestly intent on letting them go, he’s obviously sending them out to pasture with a swift kick in the rump. Picking up licks from across the 20-year spectrum, a positively playful Prince lit into the material with a determined passion – even when he was stripping it down solo-style (“Little Red Corvette,” “Cream,” “Raspberry Beret”), lending a bluesy panache to the attack.
With sax man Maceo Parker leading a three-piece horn section, the night’s performance was tight but loose, a structure that allowed funky jams to break down into slinky sex ballads. Nobody else in pop history has found such a comfortable spot to work among funk, metal, soul and jazz, and Prince revealed why he earned his laurels long ago.
“We’ve got to go back,” the diminutive star said as the show neared its end. He wasn’t just talking about leaving the stage. He was talking about recapturing his past – and in the process, pointing toward what enticingly lies ahead for an artist who’s rarely stopped moving.
Hit + Run tour, April 9, 2015, Fox Theatre
Outside of Minneapolis, there may be no place more closely bonded to Prince than the Motor City. The Fox was pulsing with energy out of the gate, packed with longtime fans happy to dive into a musical journey that would feature hits, obscurities and a dive into funk-rock history. At 56, Prince impressed with his own stamina and strong voice, bounding across the stage and nailing the highest notes when needed.
It was an occasion for soaking in a master at work – and a potent reminder of the magic to be had when the right performer locks in with the right audience on the right night. From the frenetic opening of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the epic “Purple Rain,” Prince and his nimble 3rdeyegirl band wound through his catalog with energy, showmanship and soul to spare.
And then the night brought one of the most authentic encores you’re apt to see: Prince and company were already back in their dressing rooms, done for the night, when Detroit fans refused to let them go. Stomping, chanting, pleading for 10 long minutes, the Fox audience at last coaxed the players back out to the stage – where Prince proceeded to whip up a lengthy, loose round of music that took the clock past midnight.