UNCASVILLE, Conn. - More than 35 years after his first album, Prince remains the rare performer who regularly transforms evening into event.
The 55-year-old Minnesotan opened a three-night stand Friday at the Mohegan Sun Arena, kicking off his standalone East Coast stop with a rousing trip that hit every worthwhile stop on memory lane, with a few lively turns off the beaten path for good measure.
Sporting a high-collared yellow suit and perfectly matched high heels along with circle-rimmed sunglasses and substantial quantities of Afro, Prince dug into the evening with the chunky Days of Wild, snapping at the lyrics with a playful smile. With 11 horns peppering it with bright highlights, 1999 played as a festive party jam that hit just the right notes a few days before the new year.
Looking upon the crowd that filled most of the nearly 7,500 venue seats, Prince demanded, "Put your phones down. Nobody's calling you - all the funky people are right here." He was certainly correct in his own case, shaking his tail and gesticulating with style while riding herd over the hard-charging Mutiny, an extract from his long-ago side project The Family.
His 21-piece support group combined two backing bands - 3rd Eye Girl and New Power Generation - into a blowout enterprise, the pieces of which mixed and matched to suit material that shifted gears with impressive speed. Stripped down to its 3rd Eye Girl rock component, the show ground through a take on Let's Go Crazy with plentiful dirt under its fingernails, yet still kept the original's loopy abandon. Prince wrested electric lines from his guitar there and in the 1980s B-side She's Always in My Hair, igniting its percolating throb.
It was at times like a one-man variety show, as Prince shifted from hollering the buoyant liveliness of Extraloveable Reloaded to simmering through the blowout ballad Nothing Compares 2 U, sharing the latter with his NPG band's vocalist Shelby J. He invoked Curtis Mayfield as a teacher before unleashing his still-clean falsetto for the cool gospel soul of Satisfied, and checked in on James Brown before offering his own propulsive workout Housequake.
By way of a big finish, Prince reclaimed his own property three times over as he breathed fresh energy into The Time's The Bird and Jungle Love. He polished off his main set with a Sheila E. number he wrote in the early 1980s, taking a horn-powered romp through The Glamorous Life that was as much fun as the tune has ever been.
The show extended to nearly 2½ hours over a pair of encores, the first of which kicked off with a curious interlude of Prince acting as DJ. He offered When Doves Cry in a dark arena, declaring when illumination arrived before his liking that "the music cues the lights," not the other way around. There was a little of Vanity 6's Nasty Girl and just about all of Sign o' the Times and I Would Die 4 U, before the full band returned to punch up the 1981 number Let's Work and blow out the fizzy U Got the Look.
With 3rd Eye Girl in tow, Prince stamped the evening with a ceiling-testing stroll through Purple Rain beneath a wash of appropriately colored lights, handling the heavy lifting throughout on its guitar passages - a considerably more desirable outcome than his recent offerings of the tune with a saxophone crescendo. As he drove the tune to its finish amid the audience's enthusiastic hoots of its late vocal refrain, it made for a transcendent concert experience that remains special after nearly three decades, like a trip to church, albeit at a much higher volume.
SET LIST (includes only songs played at some length)
Days of Wild
The Sweeter She Is
Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)
Let's Go Crazy
She's Always in My Hair
Nothing Compares 2 U
We're a Winner/Satisfied
The Glamorous Life
When Doves Cry
Sign o' the Times
I Would Die 4 U
U Got the Look
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)