It’s looking like this feature might have legs. After a moving contribution from Danny Schmidt, Neil Sheasby from Stone Foundation was next to send a contribution over in our direction with his usual incredibly quick turnaround. We were expecting something special here, because Neil has seen a lot of gigs (and also played a lot), so this was always going to be something a bit special, and it also has the best closing line ever. So let’s hear about Prince’s “Lovesexy” tour at Wembley Arena.

 

Tuesday 26th July 1988, Wembley Arena – 

I still find it hard to comprehend that Prince is referred to in the past tense, another true original innovator lost. It’s like a curtain closing forever, a nail through the pulse of musical history. Prince & Bowie both passed in the space of only a few months…the likes of which we will never witness again, their gift was unique & unrepeatable. Thankfully it unfolded in our lifetime. Our very own Mozarts I suppose. 

I get asked a lot about the best gig I’ve ever seen, a common topic amongst the social narrative especially after a few looseners in the pub. Now, I’ve been to my fair share, seen most of the bands & artists that I’ve wanted to, some on several occasions. I’ve been very lucky in that respect, I’ve had countless “right place/right time” moments. Probably never more so than watching Prince turn the cavernous Wembley Arena into what felt like an intimate dancehall on his “Lovesexy” tour of 1988. 

I was fortunate enough to see Prince tons of times, he was never anything less than mesmerising (ok, “Batman” tour was a bit shit but still there were THOSE moments). His arrival back in the UK in ‘88 was eagerly anticipated as he’d cancelled the previous year’s dates for the “Sign O’ the Times” tour. I was so disappointed I didn’t even muster up the momentum to return my ticket for a refund. I decided to keep it as a souvenir of a non-event and make do with watching the film of the gig a hundred times over (“please wear something Peach or Black” was the instruction on the stub) 

I managed to blag freebies for the Wembley gig via my record shop connections and myself & Hammy found ourselves nestled next to Pop royalty for the night – well, Bananarama sat behind us, the singer from The Adventures to the left and directly to my right hand side Lloyd Cole was seated, studious in spectacles, scribbling notes into an A5 writing pad all evening (I did enquire at one point if we should expect Commotions dance routines on his next tour but he just grunted and ploughed his head back into his jotter) 

Even Prince’s presentation and re-arrangement of the building was unique for the time, I think he was the first artist I saw set up in the centre of the venue and perform on a 360 degree circular stage, both Stevie Wonder & Anita Baker gigs followed suit very soon after, it made for the perfect spectacle. The “Lovesexy” tour not only featured the irrepressible Cat (remember her?), the stage in the round also came complete with a Ford Thunderbird automobile, multi-level trellis staging, a fountain and a basketball court!

Despite selling out every night it’s reported that the huge production costs resulted in the tour making zero profit…did he care? 

It was pop/funk/rock genius all rolled up into one of the most explosive performances I’ve ever watched. Master showmanship channelling prime time James Brown, Little Richard, George Clinton…musicianship that would leave most others standing (he’s easily the best guitarist I’ve ever heard) and of course…those songs. Let’s not overlook that marvellous run of recorded output and that of course is only what we have heard, thousands of recordings from that period remain in the vaults, unreleased. No one could keep up with him. The 80’s were defined by his soundtrack as a backdrop.

Find me a more complete piece of work than the sprawling epic that was “Sign O’ the Times”? Virtually faultless. “Parade”, “Around the world in a Day”, “Lovesexy”… just ridiculously amazing records. I used to study those albums, I think I played Prince at some point each & every day for at least 5 years. I carried a cassette of “Sign O’ the Times” album in my pocket everywhere I went for almost a year. “Purple Rain” was probably a red herring, he had so much more…could turn his funk & flavour in any direction and make it seem effortless and after a global success he wasn’t afraid to do a musical U-turn and take risks.

Ever the entertainer, he still didn’t play or pander to the gallery. He made his own rules, determined not to be typecast.

That night in July 1988 he was unstoppable, in his absolute prime. The show was relentless, it reached unthinkable, extravagant heights, unachievable by any else’s standards. I vividly recall one moment clear as crystal……..

Prince was off on a guitar workout, in itself a bona fide shock of electricity; he could play, really play…in an instant his solo peaks to dizzying heights, he throws the guitar around his back, struts off in 5″ high heels down a stage ramp somehow managing to drop to the floor doing the splits in full flow whilst still hurtling towards his microphone, he arrives at the edge of stage, spins round in a pirouette, boots his mic stand away from him, drops for one more session of the splits then leaps back up to catch his microphone in perfect time to start singing the next verse…all of the time the guitar stays intact…it was undoubtedly the coolest 60 seconds of my gig-going experiences; even Lloyd Cole put his pen down.

Allison Russell and JT Nero are, collectively, Birds of Chicago. The press release refers to Americana and roots but, even by current standards, that’s stretching the definition. Is that a criticism of this album or Birds of Chicago? Hell, no; the truly great creatives never stand still. Birds of Chicago has evolved into a blend of deep soul, funk, roots and gorgeous melodic pop that defies classification and picks up influences from a dizzying variety of musical styles, blending it into a blissful musical confection. You are getting the message aren’t you? I love this album.

Not one single song that I want to skip and at least two that I want to listen to again and again. I think I’ll concentrate on those two. The title track is a slow, soulful ballad with a moody organ intro and superb use of the impassioned male and female vocals. The “Love in Wartime” title is a metaphor; the theme is the miracle of existence and perseverance, whatever the circumstances. It’s nearly six minutes long, but you just don’t want it to stop; every part of it is so perfect.

“Try” is just over five minutes long and the combination of perfect soulful vocal duet with a steadily building arrangement and a lyric that tackles the difficult subject of loss of motivation and vitality with age and the need to avoid complacency in our relationships and life in general. It’s powerful stuff, musically and lyrically. There is a lot more to the album than the two huge ballads; “Baton Rouge” has a lovely female lead vocal, some French lyrics (of course) and a clarinet solo appearing out of nowhere.

You want me to pick out a few more? Ok, with such a huge mix of influences, it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll pick out a phrase now and then that evokes something else. “Never Go Back” has a feel of the Stevie Wonder classic “For Once in My Life”, while “Lodestar” evokes The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket”. I like to think of it as creative recycling. Don’t even try to impose categories on this album; its heady mix of vocal and instrumental styles is unique.

“Love in Wartime” is released on Friday May 4 on Signature Sounds Recordings.