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Prince’s palace coup

Times Staff Writer

This is turning out to be quite a year for someone much of the pop world long ago declared was pretty much toast. However brilliant Prince’s music once was, his albums over the last decade have been as unreliable as the average tech stock and his career momentum all but nonexistent.

If his name change and the symbol business didn’t seem goofy enough, his decision to largely release his albums himself was taken by most record executives as a sign that some of his beloved doves must have been flying around in his head.

Through it all, however, Prince remained so captivating whenever he stepped on stage that even the most committed skeptic realized he could snap back and regain his royal position in pop at any time.

As Prince opened his first arena tour in six years on Saturday at the Lawlor Events Center, the question was whether this was that time.

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Better believe it.

Backed by the latest edition of his well-drilled New Power Generation band, Prince delivered a knockout of a performance that relived some old times with style yet felt forward-thinking and fresh.

There are lots of nights in pop when you sense a star being born. This was one of the few where you felt a star was being reborn.

Besides razor-sharp versions of tunes from his back pages, Prince brought a warmth, humor and passion to his work that reminded us how one-dimensional most pop performers are today, in an era where some of the biggest stars have their music designed for them by producers, their dance steps outlined by choreographers and their vocals often enhanced by backing tapes.

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Prince’s opening number, “Musicology,” even poked fun at the lack of personality and heart in so much of contemporary pop.

In the song, which is also the title track of Prince’s upcoming album, he asks the audience teasingly, “Don’t you miss the feeling music gave you” in the old days.

He’s not talking about his own glorious ‘80s pop reign, when he gave us more than a dozen inventive Top 10 hits that mixed themes of sex and salvation with a provocative edge, but the legion of funk-minded musicians who inspired him, including Earth, Wind & Fire and Sly Stone.

Throughout the two-hour-plus concert, Prince also saluted the richness of live music, generously showcasing the members of his band in solo and jamming roles.

But it’s Prince’s own music the audience came to celebrate, and he wasted no time in helping them do just that.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today,” he declared in the opening line of one of his most delirious tunes, “Let’s Go Crazy,” and the audience went a bit bonkers itself -- cheering, as it did often through the night, with such intensity and joy that Prince touched his heart and expressed thanks to the crowd at several points in the show.

As he also demonstrates on the new album, which has the feel on first listening of easily being his most engaging CD in a decade, Prince seems to be reinvigorated and refocused. In a novel marketing move, the CD, which will be released next month by Columbia Records, is being given away free to everyone who attends a concert on the tour.

It’s as if this veteran pop strategist knows that at age 45, this may be his last chance to recapture the public’s attention, and he’s not about to let the opportunity slip past him.

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Prince certainly set the stage for this comeback well. In recent weeks, he was showcased at the Grammys, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and named one of the 50 greatest figures ever in rock by Rolling Stone (finishing at No. 28, ahead of the Who, Johnny Cash and fierce ‘80s rival Michael Jackson).

Perhaps most revealing of all, Prince also went on Tavis Smiley’s PBS talk show and spoke about his music and fans with such humility and purpose that anyone who was ever touched by his music must have taken heart.

“I give them a lot of credit to be able to hang with me this long because I’ve gone through a lot of changes,” Prince said of his fans during the broadcast. “But they’ve allowed me to grow and we can tackle serious subjects and try to be better human beings, all of us.”

Well, being better human beings is nice, but the 12,000 fans who packed the arena Saturday were mainly interested in a good time.

Prince made that easy.

He came on stage, which was set up “in the round” fashion, after a tape was shown of Alicia Keys’ inspired speech inducting him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month. In some circumstances, the tape might come across as pretentious, but the sincerity and accuracy of Keys’ words made it especially effective.

Besides being an expressive singer and guitarist, Prince remains a master showman. He can do dance steps as fast as James Brown in his prime and he knows how to accentuate the sensual and humorous strains in his music.

He was in such a playful mood Saturday that he slipped in a touch of OutKast and Sam & Dave.

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Though the emphasis was on the stabbing, horn-driven funk foundation of his music, Prince traded his electric guitar for an acoustic during an engaging sequence late in the set. It gave Prince, whose liberating music has a vulnerable, sometimes spiritual undercurrent, both a chance to reach out in a more intimate manner and the opportunity to be a philosophical, then bawdy, bluesman.

Prince also brought an element of drama to the tour, which continues tonight at Staples Center, by announcing he will be playing some of his biggest hits for the last time. That injected an extra sense of occasion Saturday whenever Prince and the band went into one of his old favorites.

Even if history tells us that no one really retires the old hits for long, just the possibility that you’d never be able to hear, say, “Controversy” or “Little Red Corvette” again live gave the numbers added resonance.

So which old numbers is he doing on the tour?

To give the answer would be like revealing the final plot twist in a movie review. Part of the fun of the concert is guessing what’s coming next.

Here, however, is one hint about Prince’s most celebrated song, “Purple Rain": He had a purple guitar in his hand at the end of the night.

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Prince

Where: Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., L.A.

When: Today, 7:30 p.m.

Price: $49.50 to $85

Contact: (213) 742-7340


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