In a barely-publicised coup for self-made music promoter Vince Power, funk behemoth Prince altered his European tour this summer to include a date at Kent’s Hop Farm Festival, which has grown progressively over the last four years with performances from veterans including The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Neil Young. And sure enough, amid general crowd disbelief and news that the controversial megastar had been heavily delayed in arriving in England, the diminutive Prince Nelson Rogers arrived in the UK on July 3rd, 2011, to entertain 30,000 anxious fans. As somewhat of a Prince fanatic, I will admit to a feeling of trepidation ahead of the performance; the fear of disappointment that he may have lost what he once had shrouding the build-up to the evening somewhat. I needn’t have worried.
The set, nearing two and a half hours in length, was an emphatic display of raw talent and a back-catalogue which could rarely be rivalled, carried off with an unexpected gratitude and humility. At the start of his first encore Prince asked of his entirely captivated audience â€œY’all realise how many hits we got?â€ and there seemed to be a collective wave of admittance that none of us really did.
The set got off to a slightly unconventional start, with projections of videos by some of his less thanÂ successful side-projects from over the years: Morris Day and the Time, Taja Sevelle and Sheila E, accompanied by a nervous anxiety around the crowd. His backing-group, the stunningly talented current incarnation of the New Power Generation, took to the stage and slowly began taking up their positions, showing a trademark ability to work an audience into a frenzy before the man we couldn’t truly believe we would be seeing burst on, amidst a blaze of funk and stilettos. Prince used the first song almost as a soundcheck, barking orders to the sound-tower midway through the only recent track of the entire set, 2010’s ‘Laydown’. It was apparent that this set was going to be nothing less than precise, a true perfectionist at work.
While this may have been an unconventional opening, what followed was a triumphant boast of the music which made Prince famous before the press caught on to his less than orthodox lifestyle changes over the years, and media projections became more important than hit songs.
He began with the opening eulogy of ‘Let’s Go Crazy‘, but deemed it unnecessary to continue further than â€œDearly beloved we are gathered here today to get through this thing called lifeâ€ before bursting into a montage of shorter versions of hits such as ‘Delirious‘, ‘1999‘, ‘Raspberry Beret‘ and ‘Little Red Corvette‘, barely stopping for breath, and blowing away any doubt that lingered that he may have lost his touch.
The stage at Hop Farm tiered out at the sides, adding an unexpected intimacy to the whole spectacle, and as the performers approached the far reaches of the crowd, there was a glint in each of their eyes which suggested that the excitement in the audience had brought an energy to the show that we were truly privileged to be a part of.
Following equally energetic renditions of ‘Take Me With U‘ and ‘U Got the Look‘, interspersed with sensational solos by each of the band in turn, the pace was changed with an arresting duet of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U‘ with New Power Generation member and vocal powerhouse Shelby J. After a rousing sing-along Prince joked that he felt bad stealing a SinÃ©ad O’Connor song, before adding â€œWhat? I bought a house with that song.â€
This was followed by a typical funk arrangement of Michael Jackson‘s ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough‘, during which Prince paid homage to the late King of Pop’s dance stylings, and led the crowd in a raucous sing-along.
The next track was 1991’s ‘Cream‘, an unexpected inclusion given Prince’s recent religious preachings and the song’s sexual nature. Thankfully, other than one mention of thanking God and a couple of praying gestures, the set was separated from anything other than music at its purest and its finest.
After a performance of The Time’s ‘Cool‘, the stage was left in the capable hands of the female members of his band, all five of them sharing vocals on Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love‘, recently brought back into the public arena by Adele. The only instrument used in the rendition was the flamboyant purple grand piano in the corner of the stage, which Prince surprisingly didn’t play himself at any point.
He then said his goodbyes (for the first time) with an epic performance of ‘Purple Rain‘, which lasted at least fifteen minutes, with the crowd being perhaps unwisely given vocal duties on the difficult high-pitched vocal refrain the song ends with. Halfway through the song canons shot up streams of purple confetti, in a slightly cheesy but nonetheless powerful display. As the purple rain settled upon us, the euphoria was unlike anything I have ever felt or witnessed at such a large-scale live performance.
After leaving the stage with the audience still in strong voice, the band returned, gracious and grateful, vowing to play â€œall nightâ€; crashing through ‘Kiss‘, ‘Controversy‘, ‘Housequake‘ and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend‘, during which Prince stalked the stage, climbing over the piano and dancing provocatively with his band.
Having worked the crowd up as far as it seemed he could take them, he announced proudly â€œThis is real music. We are real musicians. I know you’ve been deprived.â€ As the crowd cheered he continued â€œJust because it’s a party, don’t mean you gotta play the top 40,â€ and began the next song by revealing â€œIf I was at a party, I’d play this.â€ A cover of Sly and the Family Stone‘s ‘Everyday People‘ began, during which he was joined on stage by one-time Family Stone bassist and Prince collaborator Larry Graham, who had earlier in the day performed a slap-bass-fuelled set with his band Graham Central Station. Together they played ‘Play That Funky Music‘ and another Sly and the Family Stone track, ‘I Wanna Take You Higher‘. They then announced a special treat for England, and led the crowd in yet another sing-along, this time The Beatles‘ ‘Come Together‘.
The band left the stage yet again to rapturous applause, but deep down we knew there was more to come. The crowd chanted for what seemed like ten minutes before Prince once again graced the stage, announcing â€œI wish there was no such thing as a curfew; a party’s meant to go on until everyone’s asleep.â€
This second encore began with perhaps the only unwise inclusion of the entire set, a cover of Sylvester’s ‘Dance (Disco Heat)‘, where perhaps an unplayed hit such as ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover‘ or ‘When Doves Cry‘ would have been more to the crowd’s taste as tired legs began to set in.
The show then ended, bang on the eleven o’clock curfew, with a fast and furious version of ‘Baby I’m a Star‘ from the film ‘Purple Rain‘, played with such zeal and energy that you would hardly have believed that it was the end rather than the beginning of the night.
The wild applause was more-than deserved, and as the crowd dispersed, voices of disbelief rang out at what they had just witnessed, and the ‘Purple Rain‘ vocal refrain was deeply ingrained in everybody’s minds.
It was a true unforgiving spectacle of the musical power Prince has, and a fine example of where you can go with great talent and great songs. It appeared almost a lesson to the less-than-inspiring support of Tinie Tempah, as to just what can be achieved with live music, when the artist and audience are truly in it together.