Prince is that old friend you haven't seen in a while - the one who, years ago, was wild, outrageous. And you could always count on him to bring the fun and funk to the party.
The artist didn't exactly go away. But his work has been erratic over the last decade - and no wonder: He waged a much-publicized battle with his former label Warner Bros., lost both parents and a son, and joined the Jehovah's Witnesses.
While Prince sought inner peace, we sure missed having him around.
Now apparently evolved and spiritually settled, the superstar hasn't forgotten how to have a funky good time, though the raunchy antics of yesterday are no more. His Thursday show at the MCI Center, the first of a three-night stand at the arena, was full of great contradictions: grandeur and intimacy, freewheeling improvisation and structure. Prince was literally at the center of the best party you've been to all year.
On a cross-shaped stage in the middle of MCI, the Purple One and his eight-piece band took the audience on an unrelenting funk journey richly imbued with the spirit of one of Prince's musical heroes: James Brown.
The show opened with a video montage of the Minneapolis legend's nearly 30-year career, featuring snippets of an early appearance on American Bandstand and scenes from Purple Rain that were interspersed with clips of Alicia Keys' heart-felt speech during Prince's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year.
Afterward, the star himself appeared in a stylish camel-colored jacket, white pants and white boots with high, clear heels.
And the party was on. He opened with "Musicology," the title cut from his latest album. He strutted around the stage as the airtight band cooked the groove. The three horn players accented his stop-start moves with blasts of brass. "Musicology" smoothly segued into a rock-heavy take of "Let's Go Crazy" as white confetti and purple metallic strips spiraled down from the ceiling. All this during just the second song of the night.
As he barreled through "When Doves Cry" and "Baby, I'm a Star," Prince looked as if he were having more fun than the thousands of fans packed in the arena. Nearly everyone was out of his seat for the first half of the show, which displayed the grand side of the enigmatic singer-songwriter-musician.
A doll-like man, he seemed impressed by the fluidity of his own guitar playing as he winked and smiled after every impressive run. And his every stroke was brilliant indeed.
His long solo during "Shhh...," a sexy ballad he wrote and produced for Tevin Campbell back in 1993, was an exhilarating sonic ride that felt steamily erotic and deeply spiritual all at the same time. After it was over, you shook your head, fanned yourself and wondered, "What more can this little guy do?"
Well ... bring more funk. Prince and the band, which featured the great saxophonist Maceo Parker, fired up "Pass the Peas," the 1972 classic by the J.B.'s. "I Feel for You" and "Controversy" closed out the fiery first half of the more than two-hour show.
Part II, the unplugged segment, revealed Prince's intimate, funny side. Sitting on a silver swivel stool and decked out in red with an acoustic guitar, the artist offered an unadorned version of "Little Red Corvette," which worked well as a folk-rock tune.
He delved into an original, humorous blues song about a relationship going south. Check out the demands of his girlfriend: "You need to learn how to work the toilet seat," Prince sang in a high falsetto. "When it's up, you betta put it down."
Throughout the sprawling, satisfying show, Prince hit nearly every high point of his career, including just about every song on the Purple Rain soundtrack. The band re-joined him at the end of the set. During "Take Me With You," he asked, "Did we have a good time?"
Oh, yeah. It's always great when an old friend comes back - rejuvenated and real.
When: Tonight at 8
Where: MCI Center, 601 F. St. N.W. Washington
Call: Ticketmaster at 410-547-SEAT or visit www. ticketmaster.com