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Separating the art from the artist

Prince meets the Beverly Hillbillies
by Mark Anderson

early seven hours after Prince began his April show in Portland – and almost three hours into May – he kicked his guitar into overdrive with the theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies."

He's a rainbow: Prince's latest CD is a rewarding challenge.

"I bet you didn't know I could play country," said Prince, flaunting an exaggerated twang and a devilish grin. The ode to the Clampetts usually doesn't sound like Roy Clark crossed with Duke Ellington, Sly Stone and ZZ Top, but it was an oddly apt metaphor for an anything-and-everything-goes kind of night.

Sure, everybody had to pony up an extra $30 for the after-show party – not unlike collecting beer money to stoke an increasingly wild bash before the keg runs dry. And sure, a two-hour intermission allowed time to move equipment, players and partiers from uppity Schnitzer Hall to the low-down Roseland Theater.

Everyone, Prince probably included, needed time to catch a little breath.

Because Portland was in the middle of finding out what nearly 25 years of fuss is all about – and getting a seriously uninhibited look at the full flower of the crazy little 43-year-old from Minneapolis and his generous gift.

Newspaper ad: Short notice for tickets, the show four days later.

Yes, Prince's 1997 arena show passed through (long-timers say it's his only other time in P-town). But that was an unsatisfying greatest-hits conveyor belt, mostly remembered for 40-second teases of dozens of songs and nowhere near enough Prince on guitar. A bit of a bust.

This one was for real: full-length hits, top-flight band mates, Scottie Pippen jokes, great covers ("Rollercoaster," "A Case of You," "La-La Means I Love You") and plenty of dance opportunity – for Prince, the $50 concert hall cheap-seat folks and everybody in between.

Best of all, since Prince is the septet's only guitarist these days, he forced his own amazing hand.

The first hour at the Schnitzer was a challenging slice of his jazz-tempered latest, The Rainbow Children, while the last 30 minutes was Prince alone at the keys. The in-between hour and then some was a brilliant blast of several of last century's signature songs.

Twenty-five years of fuss: The after-show party was where things really heated up.

But it was after midnight at the Roseland, a dingy little ballroom with a balcony, where things really heated up. Hundreds of eager believers devoured several 10-20 minute jams that could have gone on twice as long and nobody would've complained.

"Joy in Repetition," an atmospheric, lengthy highlight, evolved into a blissful meditation where the crowd even aced its complicated sing-along assignment.

"That's so funky, Portland," smiled Prince, "don't even try to describe it."

Beyond that, I won't. Suffice to add that among his pet themes these days are bad corporate radio, the ridiculousness of autographs and, of course, the family of man.

I spent my first money on Prince in 1981, after stumbling upon a Minneapolis in-store display of his fourth album, Controversy, discounted to $5.99. I'd heard the buzz and was merely a curious consumer. It was two years later, with the 1999 double-album, that I got hooked. Ever since, I've absorbed quizzical looks from the unenlightened – throughout Prince's myriad personality quirks and curious career moves, his laundry list of women and the occasional lackluster output (i.e. the "Graffiti Bridge" movie, the Gold Experience album).

"He's irrelevant," some always say. "Washed up and way past his prime," add others. "He's a flash in the pan that you'll barely remember in 10 years," predicted a drummer-friend, circa 1985.

Over 20 years, I've seen the live show maybe a dozen times – First Avenue (twice), Paisley Park and Denver in the '80s; Radio City Music Hall (twice) and Minneapolis (many times) in the '90s; both times in Portland. Some have been great, some good enough.

Plenty of artists get lifelong mileage out of making especially good records or being extra good in concert, but only a few really combine the two.

Prince adds keyboard virtuosity, dance, a little comedy and a lot of indescribable flair. Then there's that singular silky voice, both in upper and lower registers, plus the peerless guitar.

Warner Brothers knew: the 1978 debut began a "produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince" parade.

A wise maxim regarding art criticism is as simple as this: Separate the art from the artist.

Legend has it that Walter Yetnikoff, the former head of CBS Records, held back a 1985 Leonard Cohen album from stateside release, telling the quixotic Canadian bard, "We know you're great, Leonard, we just don't know if you're any good." The upshot is that Cohen's greatest acclaim in this country was yet to come, with I'm Your Man in 1988. The brilliant '85 album, Various Positions, was eventually released.

Prince's vaults, it often is said, contain recorded, unreleased songs by the hundreds, and the way he plays guitar, he never needs to write another to keep gathering crowds. As a member of the virtual high school class of 1976, along with Madonna and Michael Jackson, Prince's genius seems most likely headed toward its prime.

Didn't Mozart, Bach and Beethoven have eccentricities? Didn't Shakespeare, Steinbeck, John Lennon and Jesus? Don't you and I? Granted, it's not easy to fully appreciate someone in their own time. In Minneapolis, they're so familiar with Prince and his after-show schtick that something related to boredom has set in. But even there, of course, many have never been.

"We're all the same," Prince earnestly told the flock near the end of his Portland mission. "Well ..." he added, slowly producing a lopsided grin and extending one outlandishly bedecked foot forward to complete the nightlong metaphor, "... maybe except for the shoes."

Now at least a small portion of Portland can be added to the ones who know the difference.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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