Baby I’m a Star (Again)

Prince operates on so many levels it’s hard to keep up with him. “Last time I checked this is not 1984,” he rapped shortly after taking the stage at Avery Fisher Hall on April 9. “If you came to get your Purple Rain on you might as well hit the door.” The current New Power Generation, a three-piece (plus brass) with a wicked snap-crackle-pop, was tearing through the classically funky fusion of his most recent record, The Rainbow Children. As he finished his warning, the video screens filled with images of the airport surveillance process. “You have been randomly selected to be searched,” added our host. “Maceo—blow your horn.”

See, 1984 wasn’t just a good time for Big Brother; it was also the year of The Kid’s universal masterpiece and the year after Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” a record that tied together the history and future of black music in America. Like Hancock, who built a crossover hit out of Miles’s electro jazz, The Artist wants the best of those two worlds. It’s JVC NPG, but in a good way, and not just on the new material; his rhythm section (Rhonda Smith, bass; and John Blackwell, drums) led vibrant takes on “Strange Relationship,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “Love Rollercoaster” that had the security guards rocking up the aisles, abandoning any pretense of calming the party. “They said this is a respectable place,” he said sternly. “Y’all trying to get funky up in here? DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? If y’all trying to take me you know I will go there.” This being a Prince show, that was after a ferocious groove praising a “theocratic order.”

Even his bullshit has gotten a little more sensible; when he talks about slavery now, he doesn’t mean his contract with Warners, although he’s picked up a nasty hint of Jew-baiting (Rainbow‘s “Family Name,” addressed to “devils” named “Rosenbloom,” “Pearlman,” and “Goldstruck”; and “Muse 2 the Pharaoh,” comparing holocausts). For all his renunciations of his profane past, he’s still a sexy MF, wiggling like a pomaded salamander and working the crowd like Maceo’s old man.

After one taste of the lick on Sly’s “Sing a Simple Song,” he stopped: “Y’all ain’t ready for that.” (This trick worked so well he repeated it later.) Of course he relented, and a minute later Larry Graham, part of a long line of befuddled cameos, emerged in an ice-cream suit to sing his “walkin’ walkin’ walkin’ ” line and do the scissor dance. When Graham made a move toward the back, Prince yelled, “Rhonda, don’t give him the bass or we’ll never get out of here!” Instead, Graham vaulted into the front row and high-fived his way up to the lobby. For an encore, we got an impassioned solo keyboard workout through hits of escalating belovedness, culminating in his second and third dips into the purportedly verboten soundtrack, including the title number. Then he played another set of favorites with the band, although by that point the source of the room’s crackling electricity had moved from the stage to the seats. Unlike Miles, Prince can’t not face the audience, but if you could get that much love from that many people, you’d milk it too.

He’s always been confident about the faith of his fans, but now he’s made it his business plan, working without a label and charging $100 a year for exclusive CDs of new material and first crack at the good seats, along with admission to the freewheeling sound checks and all-night after-show gigs. It seems to be working for him. Having settled into his emancipation, he’s making the least pop music of his career, but he rocks it like it’s 1984. —Josh Goldfein

Fire This Time

During a wildly varied song that moved from Cuban son with fluttering hip-hop backbeats to a retro-soul go-go groove, three screaming horns brought it all to a stop. “Fire, everybody get higher,” two male voices insisted at the pause. Lead singer (and diva-in-waiting) Xiomara Laugart responded almost naughtily, “No quema, no quema” (“It doesn’t burn”).

Yerba Buena prescribes massive doses of Afro-Cuban beatdowns that massage the soul and blister the feet. It was these kinds of hybrid jams that had even the stiffest listener tilt a hip during the group’s sweaty, fiery set at S.O.B.’s last Wednesday. Led by keyboardist Andrés Levin, a Venezuelan expat producer whose credits range from D’Angelo to Ricky Martin, Yerba Buena had just come back from opening for the Dave Matthews Band at several East Coast arenas. This unsigned band’s unbridled energy bent the walls and hypnotized the audience, who danced the electric slide to a techno mambo.

Blending boogaloo, cumbia, samba, and bling-bling production on structures built up from Afro-Cuban foundations, this New York- Havana big band recalls the work of Little Louie Vega and Dope Gonzalez on Nuyorican Soul. The recombinant African strands blurred continental lines as Fela Kuti-grounded Afrobeat sauntered with Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and then leapt over to la isla for rumba inflected with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. Bassist Descemer Bueno and conga/tumba player Pedro Martinez often sent love letters home, making Yoruba-language chants that Laugart replied to (in near-operatic pitches). Leading the dance with her hips and shoulders, Laugart inspires comparisons to Diana Ross—subtle, stylish, and sassy. When she tilted her head back and spread her arms wide to proclaim, “Guajira loves the sunshine,” she was the high priestess ushering in the Age of Aquarius and Nuyorcuban soul. —Enrique Lavin