The Purple One touched down in Orange County on Tuesday night for the first of four shows at the City National Grove of Anaheim, part of a brief tour of tiny-for-him West Coast venues with his new backing band, 3rd Eye Girl.
But if Prince’s organizing principle for the jaunt appears to be smallness – little rooms, short sets, a backing trio far cozier than the 22-piece ensemble he brought to the South by Southwest music conference in March – that guideline definitely did not apply to the legend’s sound, which roared like a freight train as he powered through new tunes, old obscurities and radically reworked versions of classics such as “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Little Red Corvette.”
“I love you, California,” he said about halfway through the 90-minute show. “But not like I love my guitar.”
Or like he loves high ticket prices: As with the other three Grove dates, fans paid $200 to get into Tuesday’s concert, which a venue representative said had sold out, though standing room was still available as Prince took the stage at around 8:25 p.m. (For the record, that’s less than a half-hour after the advertised start time -- the very picture of punctuality by Prince’s standards.)
What were they paying so dearly for? In part, the opportunity to see an icon up close.
Though he and a crew of roving security types enforced his longstanding no-photos rule – even media were banned from shooting the show – Prince performed right at the lip of the Grove’s stage, providing an unusually intimate view of this detail-obsessed style maven and his one-of-a-kind body language.
Dressed in a long white coat over a skintight top and slim-fitting trousers, Prince – who’ll turn 55 next month – shimmied insinuatingly during spacey ballads such as “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow,” from his self-titled 1979 album, and “I Like It There,” which contained some delightfully filthy lyrics along with another sly declaration of devotion.
“I love you, baby, more than I love my hair,” Prince sang. Then he reconsidered, touching his neatly cropped Afro. “Well, maybe not the hair.”
As sensuous as they were, those ballads only represented a breather in a set that otherwise seemed modeled on Jimi Hendrix’s late ’60s / early ’70s Band of Gypsys: soulful, melodic songcraft pushed to noisy blues-guitar extremes.
“Do you love rock and roll?” Prince wondered following a hard-driving rendition of “Endorphinmachine.” “Do you love your rock and roll funky, though?”
The artist’s approach here felt fueled to some degree by a desire to emphasize the value of musicianly chops. On several occasions he gave over the spotlight to the members of 3rd Eye Girl – guitarist Donna Grantis, bassist Ida Nielsen and drummer Hannah Ford – all of whom soloed with precision if not the live-wire intensity of their boss.
And when the band appeared to start up “Screwdriver,” one of a handful of new tracks Prince is selling through a recently launched website, it soon turned out that we were actually hearing a recording.
“Y’all mind if we lip-sync one song?” he asked, adding, “Everybody else is doing it.” Then the punch line – “Psych!” – as the players took up the song’s spring-loaded groove for real.
Yet if the Live Out Loud tour, as it’s billed, is meant to show other performers How It’s Really Done, Prince managed to deliver the lesson in often-thrilling fashion, never more so than when he rebuilt some of his best-known hits.
“Let’s Go Crazy” became a fuzzed-out grunge jam, while “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” added layers of sinewy rock muscle. And Prince played a beautifully reharmonized version of “Little Red Corvette” that restored some mystery to that early-’80s smash. (He also rebuilt songs by several other acts, including the Cars’ “Let’s Go” and a mash-up of “Wild Thing” and “Crimson and Clover.”)
Some things, though, are sacred even to this serial reinventor. Near the end of Tuesday’s show, Prince put down the guitar he’d been manhandling for most of the evening, sat down behind an electric piano and led his band mates in a gorgeously understated version of “Purple Rain.”
“If your neighbor ain’t singing along, slap ‘em,” he told the audience, but no one needed to.
Follow Mikael Wood on Twitter: @mikaelwood