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Prince at Paisley Park: Return of the funk master

Saturday night/Sunday morning, Prince, now 51 years old but preternaturally forever young, tore it up over three hours like a cutting-edge artist who now seems content to operate as the best retro-funk band leader on the planet.

Before he was a world-beating superstar, Prince Rogers Nelson was a kid playing high school dances around the Twin Cities with his first band, Grand Central. That was the mid-’70s, a time of sexy freedom typified by Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” which kicked off with slow-grind party sounds that ignited dreams of velvet-draped love nests, grooving in the living room near the cashew dish and, much later, blaxploitation camp.

Saturday night/Sunday morning, Prince, now 51 years old but preternaturally forever young, tore it up over three hours at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen like a cutting-edge artist who now seems content to operate as the best retro-funk band leader on the planet. To be sure, the set — strewn as it was with Prince hits (“Purple Rain,” “1999,” “Raspberry Beret”) and covers (Doobie Brothers, Sly & the Family Stone, Chic) — was so loose and trippy, it felt more like Arnellia’s than an arena.

“This will always be my home,” Prince told a crowd of a couple thousand at Paisley early Sunday morning during a rave-up of “Let’s Work,” which sizzled like a call-to-arms for the Obama generation. Then, as if reminding himself of his own roots and what can happen when one man puts his mind to making music for the ages, he testified, “I lived in an apartment on Aldrich. I cashed my checks at Rudolph’s [Bar-B-Que]. I swam in Lake Calhoun.”

Point being, of course, that you can and should go home again. With the specter of Michael Jackson’s tragic legacy hanging from the Paisley rafters, Prince rescued his old friend/competitor for the moment with an ebullient version of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” As he led the first few rows in a singalong, he grinned joyfully and shouted “that’s what I’m talking about,” as if the music alone could negate the ceaseless sordid Michael minutiae clogging the culture’s consciousness at the moment.

As the well-drilled six-piece band (including spiritual backbone and keyboard player Morris Hayes) churned around him, Prince seemed eminently happy to lay back, scream his Telecaster, and crack himself up with such asides as, “This is how we funk on the north side,” “What’s my hair doin’?” and “I’m so funky I can’t even sleep with myself.”

A decidedly spare affair
In the ’90s, early-morning shows at Paisley Park were the norm. Many, such as the 1994 NBA All-Star Game party and the debut party for “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” single in 1995 were lavish bashes decked out in cheesy bacchanalia themes. Saturday night, it was a decidedly spare affair: The only ornamentation in the soundstage was a giant Prince symbol on the wall, and the only paean to the past was the Oscar-winning movie star’s motorcycle from “Purple Rain,” parked behind a velvet rope in the back lot lobby.  

Clearly, the emphasis was on the dance party — the kind that Prince has been whipping up in Las Vegas over the last couple of years (hilariously, the park-and-ride buses taking fans to and from their cars smacked of blue hairs and black jack at the purple casino). And, while it was more than a little goofy to hear an extended guitar-shredding version of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” (especially when, as Prince himself crowed several times, “I got too many hits, y’all!”), there were plenty of memorable moments to be had for hard-core fans and history buffs alike.

The most notable came an hour into the set, when Prince jumped off stage and sprinted to the back of the room, where Larry Graham and members of Prince’s adopted church family sat on makeshift risers. Graham has become Prince’s musical and spiritual mentor over the past 10 years, and Prince was not about to let his hero go unannounced. He jumped up on the riser, sat and chatted intently with a very tall and very beautiful woman, rocked a bit to the music, then jumped back down and returned to the stage with Graham, who was decked out in matching white suit and floppy hat and looking for all the world like he’d just stepped out of “Shaft” or “Superfly.”

‘I wouldn’t be anywhere without him’
“I want to sit at your feet. I want to sit at your feet and watch you play,” said Prince, of the man who, as co-founder of Sly & the Family Stone and Graham Central Station, invented the slap-thumb method of bass playing, and who, in turn, had a big hand in inventing this crazy little thing called funk. As Graham strapped on his bass, Prince said, “I wouldn’t be anywhere without him,” and then he ran down a litany of other giants on whose shoulders he stands: Miles Davis, George Clinton, The Jackson Five, James Brown, Joni Mitchell, and on and on.

But forget the false modesty; the man of the moment was the legend-in-waiting who delivered a scorching reading of “Guitar” (and made the chorus “I love you baby but not like I love this guitar” a big no-duh); the man who ad-libbed during “1999,” “Mommy, why does everybody still have a bomb?” (“It’s still good, y’all!”); the man who, during “Kiss,” let it be known that, “You don’t have to watch ‘Gossip Girl’ to have an attitude.”

The man who, clad in black ruffles and heels, concluded the main set with a silly version of “The Glamorous Life,” and a litany of hits by The Time, including ’80s aphrodisiacs  “Jungle Love” and “C-O-O-L,” the latter of which found the little love god imploring, “Minneapolis, are you hot?! Uptown, are you hot?!”

The answer, at least in Chanhassen for one more night, was no; it was all very, very c-o-o-l — thanks to the man who, as the clock inched toward 2 a.m., screamed, “What’s my name? What’s my name?!”

By that time, it was obvious: 

His name is Prince, and he is so funky he can’t even sleep with himself.