This reissued box set from Prince’s unloved early-’00s period provides proof of his astounding skill as a performer and the depth of his catalog even in its shallow end.
At the turn of the millennium, the party seemed to be over for Prince. Between 2000 and 2002, he lost his father, got divorced, remarried in secret, found religion, and defended Napster in his war against a tyrannical music industry infrastructure. On top of all that, the albums he released were panned or disregarded. Even in the wake of his death, in 2016, this period was remembered as controversial or underwhelming. A reissued box set recorded during this time, composed of the 2002 album One Nite Alone…, the two-part One Nite Alone… Live!, One Nite Alone, The Aftershow: It Ain’t Over, and the Live at the Aladdin Las Vegas DVD, aims to rectify that. Taken on the whole, the box set is proof of his astounding skill as a performer, the depth of his catalog even in its shallow end, and the consistency that he brought to his concerts, night in and night out. It remains one of the few archival documents of his sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes maddeningly mercurial, but always adventurous live experience, and the most complete picture of how he put together his shows.
The discs are arranged by intensity: from the intimate, heart-to-heart balladry of One Nite Alone… to the rowdy, collaborative jamming of his after-shows. Originally released exclusively through NPG Music Club, the subscription-based access portal Prince created to share his music online in the early 2000s after a battle with Warner Bros., the box set focuses on songs that are often overlooked, forgotten, or downplayed as part of a career downturn. Perhaps none of his albums from this era suffered more from this perception than One Nite Alone…, which is easy to overlook in its austerity. Just as 1998’s The Truth pared down his songs to acoustic guitar and wispy vocals, on One Nite Alone… Prince embraced a similar reduction. Its alone-at-the-piano vibe, made ethereal and informal by his stirring voice, conjured a sort of one-on-one illusion. Very few of the ballads in his catalog are stripped so bare and exhibited so nakedly.
These aren’t in the realm of his best-written songs. In fact, when closely scrutinized, some are crudely scrawled love poems. But the subtle, spellbinding force of him on the bench unattended undercuts a lot of the clumsiness of the lyrics. The understated flourishes ring out resoundingly: the flowing, elegant piano solo on the title track, every audible tap of the sustain pedal; the way the minor chords from “Have a Heart” resurface late into “Objects in the Mirror”; the steady crescendo into the satisfying climax of the shrieked words holy wine on the Joni Mitchell cover “A Case of U.” “Avalanche” is a gripping song about the mounting wave that is racism and how the music business exploits Black artists, a practice this album was trying to fight with its exclusive release.
The hushed atmospherics of One Nite Alone… open up into the jazzy revels of One Nite Alone… Live!, a two-disc show compilation arranged from stops on the 2002 tour. The shows, which occurred in the run-up to the official release of One Nite Alone…, featured very few songs from the album on the marquee. Instead, it focuses on his born-again 2001 gospel album, The Rainbow Children. Released in the wake of his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Rainbow Children is usually remembered as one of Prince’s most frustrating albums—a dramatic and sudden shift toward jazz with an irksome, omnipresent voice-of-God-like narration and a muddled concept to boot. In a review for Rolling Stone, Arion Berger called the record busy and portentous, “church interludes that are too mystical to carry earthly convention.”
However, the same things that made those songs seem over-involved as album cuts made them perfectly suited to his live show. That kind of self-indulgent musicality and preacher’s theatricality fit the stage. There have never been funkier songs about theocratic order. Anyone unwilling to be receptive to change was kindly asked to leave: “For those of you expecting to get your Purple Rain on: You’re in the wrong house.”
The shows transformed the album from misbegotten lecture to lively celebration. In these moments on stage, his virtuosity became a bridge to the divine. With a reimagined New Power Generation backing him, featuring three saxophone players (Maceo Parker, Candy Dulfer, Najee), a trombonist (Greg Boyer), Rhonda Smith on bass, John Blackwell on drums, and Renato Neto on keyboards, the songs erupt to life.
The lounge-ready arrangements of these songs fill a room. “Muse 2 the Pharaoh” is a bizarre cut with a wack rap verse, but live, the keyboard glows, the guitars are heavier, and the groove is inescapable, rendering the rest moot. “1+1+1 is 3” breaks out into a full-on funk jam (“Somebody get me another suit ready, I’m about to sweat this one out!” Prince exclaims as he goes). The nearly 13-minute official debut of “Xenophobia,” a massive introduction for the band and a crash course in what patrons were getting with this tour, is as inspired as it is insulating. This was not an experience for the casual fan; this was an extension of the NPG Music Club vision. He implies as much: “If you drove up here in a Little Red Corvette/You might be surprised at what you gon’ get.” With the benefit of hindsight, it is proof that even the most inaccessible Prince music could be activated simply by establishing a direct connection between him and his public.
Eventually, every Prince show had to satiate the broader audience that made him a pop icon (or at least it had to pretend to try), and so disc two of One Nite Alone… Live! is for the generalist Prince fan who hadn’t heeded his earlier warnings. He does a cursory scan of the hits and fan favorites. Of course, Prince, out of spite, would rarely commit to playing any of those songs in full. As if out of obligation, he sprinkled in abbreviated renditions of “The Beautiful Ones,” “Free,” and “Sometimes It Snows In April” while drawing out Lovesexy’s “Anna Stesia” to 13 minutes. He snuck in two seven-minute Rainbow Children deep cuts. Some folks likely got all dressed up to only hear 40 seconds of “Diamonds & Pearls” and a minute and a half of “I Wanna B Ur Lover.”
This section of the main act is, strangely, the most difficult to sit with. He was not as committed to these old songs as he was sharing the messages of his newer ones. The crowd largely had the opposite desire, and that clearly frustrated him. But even his muted protest couldn’t completely stifle the showman in him. Only a few notes into “Adore” the crowd is whipped into a frenzy. His voice seems translucent, and the light that passes through it only better illuminates the baffled audience stunned by his effortless range. His sense of timing and feel for dynamics are unmistakable. Just for a moment, he transforms from religious leader to sex symbol, and there the sexual becomes sacred, which feels fitting for a song about sex so good it makes angels cry.
After a sultry performance of “One Nite Alone…,” his falsetto twinkling, “Adore” forms a little suite with “I Wanna B Ur Lover” and “Do Me, Baby,” and not even their truncated lengths can nullify the building momentum or the effect they have on the crowd. He treats listeners to his interpretation of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the song that Sinéad O’Connor made famous, turning her drawn-out bridge into a fidgety fit of kinetic energy. He brings a sassiness to “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” And even dressed down, “The Beautiful Ones” maintains much of its power, centered by his tender singing. His simpering delivery, like he’s withdrawing into a shell, only makes you yearn for more.
For those willing to wait, more often came in the form of a second show, one more freewheeling than the first. This part of the experience is captured on One Nite Alone, The Aftershow: It Ain’t Over, the most essential disc in the box set. Even listeners turned away by his religious musings and his aversion to the classics can appreciate the unquestionable skill at work here, a snapshot of one of Prince’s hallowed live traditions.
The after-show phenomenon was born during the Parade tour in 1986, according to Matt Thorne, the author of Prince: The Man and His Music. After debuting the after-show practice at two London gigs, Prince perfected the form with a third secret show at France’s small jazz venue Le New Morning that featured mutating arrangements and his father as a special guest pianist. After that, the after-show would become one of his signature moves, a live experience all its own. These shows were weirder, looser, more intimate, more improvisational, and more epic. Prince had a running dialogue with his band, giving orders on stage and correcting mistakes, and while at his stadium shows he liked to tease out the hits, during after-shows, B-sides, rarities, and covers could evolve into ten-minute opuses.
If Prince had been a bit more discerning, he might’ve released one of his more acclaimed after-shows—the nearly mythic set at The Hague’s Het Paard Van Troje in 1988 during the Lovesexy tour, perhaps—in its entirety, as its own live album. No such document exists, and though many live songs are scattered across his titanic discography, this release is one of only four official full-length live recordings of Prince. Two of the other three, C-Note, a five-song sample of outtakes from One Nite Alone… tour soundchecks, and Indigo Nights, cut from after-show performances at indigO2 nightclub in London in 2007, feel unsubstantial and incomplete. The last and recently shared soundtrack to the 1985 concert video, Prince and the Revolution: Live, is a great set from Prince and his best band, but as a ticket to his concert exploits, it’s less comprehensive. The Aftershow remains the best (official) second-hand experience for being in his audience.
The Aftershow is the rewarding culmination of the box set’s steady arc. After the solos, sermons, and serenades of the first three discs, the last is blissful excess. He completely reimagines “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and “Girls & Boys.” The George Clinton-featuring “We Do This” is joyous funk-rap interplay between two masters. The definitive version of “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton” is far more percussive, its spring-loaded bass line and supercharged keyboards building out an unstoppable locomotive engine, prompting Prince to yell out, “I want to sing but it’s too funky.”
If One Nite Alone… showcases Prince as the single-spotlight vocalist and the main act discs showcase Prince the bandleader, then The Aftershow is an exhibition for Prince as one of the greatest guitar players ever. “Joy in Repetition” is a masterclass. The deeper you get into the 11-minute “Peach (Xtended Jam),” the sturdier his rhythmic guitar becomes, even as the players around him dive in and out of solos. He amps up “Alphabet Street” and leads the band through a speed-run with some furious playing. By the end of its nearly hour-long run-time, he’d put on a clinic to rival his Super Bowl showcase.
Few seemed to understand presentation the way Prince did. After his death, his former publicist and manager Jill Willis said he was always dressed in something he could feasibly wear on stage. Several people who interacted with him over the years remarked that you would smell him before you saw him, and that he smelled like lavender. Being in view so often, he took great care in selecting how he packaged himself. He took this same approach with his craft as a performer and entertainer. Across the many varying discs of the One Nite Alone… box set, a recluse puts his showmanship on display.
Buy: Rough Trade
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