The reign won’t let up

Times Staff Writer

THERE are shows, and then there’s the pop fantasy realized. Having Prince practically sit in your lap as he takes a guitar solo midway through his debut at the Roosevelt Hotel? As the credit-card commercials say: Priceless.

Eyebrows have been raised over the exorbitant ticket prices for the artist’s seven nights of shows, billed as “3121 Live,” at the Hollywood hot spot -- $3,121.00 for dinner and tickets for two; move the decimal point one space to the left and you’ve got a standing-room spot -- but once the funk-rock maestro hit the stage Saturday, all questions of money melted away.

The 200 beautiful people perched on couches or crowded into the corners of the lush Blossom Room had purchased the right to forget that Prince was there to do his job. Arena shows are often so rote; the chance to see one of the great arena-level musicians playing in an intimate (and, therefore, casual) setting was as rare as getting a soft seat at Staples Center, and it needed to feel that way.


Prince knows this. Always one of the hardest-working -- if most unpredictable -- men in show business, he’s recently figured out a way to reinvigorate the live experience for himself and his audience.

His trick has been to transform often denigrated gigs -- the Vegas run, the hotel engagement -- into rare opportunities. He squashed the idea that appearing at a casino is for has-beens with his recent tour de force at the Rio; now, he’s reclaiming a space once reserved for wedding bands and also-rans and making it a private domain where royals play.

On Saturday, he began his set sniffing a flower and ended by triumphantly throwing down the microphone. In between, he performed a few hits (“Kiss,” a hard rock version of “U Got the Look”) but mostly concentrated on getting his powerhouse band in the pocket on material that stayed funky even when it simmered down to a slow jam.

Horns come marching in

The show started late, which is Prince’s way. Absent the main attraction, a horn section anchored by funk founder Maceo Parker marched in playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The quartet wound through the room, which had been equipped with leather couches and coffee tables to hold $400 bottles of Patron tequila, and the mood suddenly turned from Hollywood fabulous to Crescent City warm and rowdy.

After the horns joined the rest of the band, which included the hard-hitting drummer Cora Dunham and the noted Brazilian keyboardist Renato Neto, Prince finally strode out.

Within moments, he was in the audience. This was a constant: Everyone not anchored to the stage by an instrument got out and pressed the fan flesh. The festive mood broke down audience expectations and kept the excitement high, even when Prince focused on newer or more obscure material.

Only one awkward moment emerged during Prince’s forays into the crowd. He approached the daunting bunch on what could have been dubbed the “hip-hop power couch” -- it included Diddy, Death Row Records founder Suge Knight, Erykah Badu and Nas, among others -- and tried to hand the microphone to Nas.

The rapper declined to ad-lib, however, simply muttering, “I love Prince,” and handing back the hot potato. Prince then tried to work his charm on Badu; she gave up a half-hearted rhyme about sisterhood, but it fizzled out. About half of those seated on the couch then abruptly departed (although Nas and Badu both stayed).

Other loose-limbed celebrities made up for that aloofness. Laker-turned-actor Rick Fox danced goofily with his sister; actress Penelope Cruz got one of those front-row hugs. And singer Nikka Costa even joined Prince onstage, belting out a rather metallic rendition of “Purple Rain.”

The stars could let loose because of the house-party atmosphere Prince established by leading his band into the place where grooves and group interaction matter more than delivering sing-along choruses.

Gems among friends

Digging into his song bag and pulling out such gems as the carnal “Shhh” and the proto-electro “Girls and Boys,” he was like a host running down to his wine cellar and pulling out that special bottle for good friends.

The house party is, after all, the model for Prince’s current live act. After staging several legendary fetes at the West Hollywood manse he once rented, Prince clearly decided that their mood could be translated to more a formal setting.

It’s as if this former hit machine, tired of playing the commercial game, has redirected his focus on the informal process of making music with friends -- and then decided to let his fans (those with enough green, that is) in on the fun.

One flaw not unlike what might happen at a real house party marred the evening: The sound needed work. Prince’s spoken asides were barely decipherable through an echo-prone microphone, and his singing also sometimes got lost. Such kinks can be worked out, though, and could be expected in a room that’s also been used for bar mitzvahs.

The sound got better during the jazzy jam session that the most elite members of Saturday’s audience witnessed after Prince’s initial 90-minute set.

Moving into the hotel’s cordoned-off lobby, audience members perched wearily on different couches as the band unwound with a tasty selection of jazz standards. Solos impressed, but the absence of the night’s leader dulled the mood at first.

Prince finally showed up at nearly 4 a.m., teasing the crowd with a fiery guitar solo and then decamping to the back of the room. Twenty minutes later, he returned, sunglasses affixed on his head, and picked up a five-string bass. The crowd started to dance.

Perhaps not everyone who’d scored this special ticket expected a dream night that would end with Prince, the great original, leading the crowd in a rousing version of “Brick House” by the Commodores. Isn’t that what karaoke nights with pals are for? But this didn’t sound like karaoke.

Seeing Prince rip it up three feet away, and getting to sing along too? Priceless.