Two versions of Prince showed up last night at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Rock-God Prince took his time, shouting in full voice and wearing out the strings of his multi-colored guitar through long, wah-drenched solos. He churned through a slowed-down version of “Let’s Go Crazy” that briefly teased “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group. He swapped solos with his all-female rhythm section, testing the waters, taking the pulse of the audience. (“You like the rock, huh?” he said, with a sly smile.)
Then, for most of the night, there was MC Prince, who made sure everyone — his sprawling band included — got down, in a big way. He opened the show unexpectedly, rapping through “Days of Wild,” a New Power Generation song with a 1994 vintage. (It wasn’t officially released until 2002.) Throughout his 15-song set, he was generous with the spotlight, trading vocals with his backup singers and name-checking his instrumentalists. The hits came early and often: “1999,” an extended dance treatment of “Musicology,” a pair of Family songs (“Mutiny” and “Nothing Compares 2 U,” later a huge hit for Sinead O’Connor) and Time covers (“The Bird,” “Jungle Love”). He invited teams of women to dance onstage several times, doing his thing while they self-consciously did theirs.
At this point in his career, Prince clearly seems to be thinking about his own legacy and the musical lineage he comes from. He paid tribute to Curtis Mayfield with “We’re A Winner.” On longer, groove-oriented numbers when he casually directed his players, it felt like we were seeing Fela, the late Nigerian bandleader. As a first encore, Prince aligned himself with the growing EDM scene, DJ’ing a medley of his own hits (“When Doves Cry,” “Sign O’ the Times,” “Hot Thing,” and “I Would Die 4 U”) before bringing the band out for two more funk workouts (“Let’s Work” and “U Got the Look”).
Rock-God Prince owned several songs, none more memorable than “Purple Rain,” the night’s second encore, which he performed after some of the crowd had already decided to leave. On chorus after chorus of the song’s four-chord outro vamp, he explored arpeggio figures and ray-gun tones with grimaces of pure rock ectasy on his face, as the band patiently comped behind him.
Brilliant, charismatic bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding opened the show. Spalding’s music — smooth, vocal jazz with ample new-jack swing, in some of the most outsider harmonic language you’ll ever hear — illustrated yet another orbit of Prince’s sound-world, one that runs from Joni Mitchell’s mid-’70s, Jaco-driven jazz-rock albums through his own glossy ’90s work with NPG.