Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 14, 2004)
Since I’ve detailed my feelings about Prince’s sad musical decline in detail elsewhere, I’ll not delve into the topic too heavily here. Suffice it to say that a decade ago, I was an enormous Prince fan, but all of the dreck he’s produced since then has seriously taxed my patience and left me in serious danger of not bothering with his future work.
Actually, that’s not just a danger. I didn’t pick up his 3-CD release One Nite Alone – Live, and I also skipped his most recent studio album, NEWS. I saw the tour from which Nite came and didn’t like it, so why relive that? I was more open to NEWS, but based on all the comments I’ve heard about it, I thought there was a very slim chance at best that I’d even be able to make it through one listening.
But I’m not totally closed off to Prince, so I decided to give his new DVD a look. Live at the Aladdin Las Vegas comes from the end of the “One Nite Alone” tour. Staged on December 15, 2002, the DVD features an abbreviated version of the show. Technically, it includes 15 songs, though that’s not truly accurate. We only get half of a verse of “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” before Prince audibles and launches into “The Work” instead. In addition, “Strollin’” and “U Want Me” come together as one tune, which slightly abbreviates both.
The setlist for Aladdin spans a mix of releases. Four songs from Prince’s abysmal then-current The Rainbow Children appear: “1+1+1=3”, “The Work”, “Family Name” and “The Everlasting Now”. Not counting the aborted “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night”, the only excursion into the Nineties features “Strollin’” from 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls.
Heading into the Eighties, we one track from 1987’s Sign O the Times: “Strange Relationship”. Another single tune emanates from 1986’s Parade via “Sometimes It Snows In April”, while 1985’s Around the World In One Day produces “Pop Life”. The smash hit Purple Rain from 1984 adds “Take Me With U”, while we find “Gotta Broken Heart Again” from 1980’s seminal Dirty Mind. A previously unreleased song shows up as well via “U Want Me”. “Push & Pull” comes from guest star Nikki Costa, and Prince does covers of James Brown’s “Pass the Peas” and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”.
Overall, that sounds like a good mix of tracks, but unfortunately, Prince bludgeons them into mediocrity. My main complaint over the last few Prince tours is that he wants to turn everything into a jam. Sometimes he decides to go the James Brown route, while other times he thinks he’s Miles Davis. Whether funk or jazz, Prince loves his interminable jams. Timewise, the numbers on Aladdin don’t actually last all that long, but they sure feel like it.
Prince starts to harm songs right off the bat with “Pop Life”. A quality tune as originally performed, it starts well, but once he heads into freeform territory, matters go downhill considerably.
That tells the story of much of Aladdin. Making the punchy “Broken Heart” into a light jazz number doesn’t work, and even when the songs fit the format better – like “Strollin’”, which was always a rinky-dink tune – the results remain flat and unengaging. “Strange Relationship” begins as a nice variant on the album version, but inevitably it devolves into a pointless jam that causes me to lose interest. “1+1+1=3” seems to go on forever.
“Whole Lotta Love” at least offers an intriguing failure. Given my desire to hear Prince embrace his rock side and ignore the frigging jazz, I hoped to dig this take. Unfortunately, since his band is so heavily in tune with the jazz and funk elements, they can’t get their hands around a heavy rock song. Prince’s guitar playing adds some spark to the number, but the meandering backup neuters the number and leaves it without the appropriate punch and bite.
The core tune of “Push & Pull” does little for me, and Nikka Costa feels too much like a Janis Joplin wannabe for my liking. At least Prince whips out his guitar for some satisfying leads, which makes it one of the DVD’s more interesting numbers in the end. The same goes for “Family Name” to a lesser degree.
I still count Prince as one of the all-time great guitarists, which makes his reluctance to display his real talent all the more frustrating. Back in the mid-Nineties, he briefly explored the concept of playing in a power trio, and the results were fairly exhilarating. Too bad he doesn’t recognize that less can be more and go back that format.
Unfortunately, Live at the Aladdin Las Vegas displays too many of Prince’s faults and not enough of his strengths. At least with a running time of only 72 minutes, he doesn’t wear out his welcome; the actual “One Nite Alone” concerts pushed the three-hour mark, which made them a real endurance test. Aladdin occasionally shows sparks of Prince’s skills, but only in maddening spurts.