His sunglasses, his Vox guitar, the microphone stand bearing his symbol, and a thick, humid haze ripe from the ecstatic flailing of 5,222 limbs: That’s all that stood between Prince and the first sold-out crowd of his and 3RDEYEGIRL’s HIT & RUN Tour.
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL succeeded in doing the seemingly impossible for the launch of the impromptu odyssey by forging an intimate, ironclad connection between one of pop’s most aloof and untouchable performers and his adoring public. They reached from the front row to the back of the balcony and met the outstretched arms and eager fingertips of Louisville in a mutual, ravenous embrace. There was no waiting. There was no pretext. HIT & RUN isn’t about standing on ceremony or rolling out the purple carpet for the hits; it’s about gritting your teeth, rolling your hips, tensing your muscles, bucking, screaming, sighing, and wiping the stray saliva from your lips in unison after every glorious, sustained chord with the man and women who made the aural orgasm their collective calling card. The kind of lover who gets off alone is a selfish one, and thankfully, the matrimony between artist and audience remains satisfied in Louisville. No one — new fans, old fans, purists, and skeptics alike — left the Palace Theater feeling unfulfilled for the first of Prince & 3RDEYEGIRL’s two shows on March 14.
Prince’s expertise with give-and-take should be studied, written down, and taken as gospel, as the man knows how to conduct the emotional current of a room with little more than a darting glance and sly lip-curl. One minute he’s stern and statuesque behind the microphone; the next he’s successfully holding the gaze of nearly 3,000 people and clasping their sticky hands over the lip of the stage. Whether he was leaping from the kit to the mic in one swift, feline movement, decimating a solo without breaking a sweat or letting loose with a falsetto roll Mariah Carey would covet, Prince never faltered, nor did he make an ill-fated step or strike a wrong note.
“1999,” “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Kiss,” “Hot Thing” — the hits fans craved were present and accounted for, with 3RDEYEGIRL providing a metallic, current edge to the iconic cuts from his catalog. “Purple Rain” made for a downright exultant finale, and by the time its uplifting solos soared from his fingertips into the ether at the Palace, Prince’s face was contorted just as ecstatically as those who came to see him. That mutual bliss is usually reserved for those sharing a cigarette between the sheets. In Louisville, that closeness and climax was achieved in less than two hours, and nobody had to take their clothes off to get there.
While any show involving Prince is a purely Prince affair by default, HIT & RUN is a production that’s hardly a solo effort or the celebration of a singular talent. 3RDEYEGIRL’s drummer, the pugilistic, feisty fireball otherwise known as Hannah “Ford” Welton, had the honor of greeting the crowd just before the curtain dropped to reveal her triad kit and mighty accomplices in this mission of funk, Donna Grantis (guitar) and Ida Kristine Nielsen (bass) — and, of course, Prince. Clearly thrilled to be home, Welton, a local music maven who cut her snare-biting teeth in the Louisville Leopards, a youth percussion ensemble, was radiant as she further riled up the salivating audience and maintained that glow throughout the set.
From the raucous strains of “Let’s Go Crazy” to “Purple Rain,” Welton provided not only the heartbeat of 3RDEYEGIRL, but the pulse of Louisville, as clearly the whole damn city was trying to get into this show (or the following three that sold out just as quickly as the first when they went on sale earlier this week). Prince endorsed Welton’s special spotlight and local connection, which comes as no surprise: His appreciation and admiration for 3RDEYEGIRL has been apparent on the numerous stages they’ve shared and throughout last fall’s perfect, eight-minute Saturday Night Live performance, and he brought the yet-to-be-released issue of DRUM! Magazine, featuring Welton on the cover, out to boast about her and flash a few grins to the front row.
Welton (and Grantis and Nielsen) hardly upstaged him, and Prince seemed happy to not only share the spotlight, but step aside and relish in the exquisite solos and exceptional gifts of his collaborators for a few bars. Prince will always commandeer his own plane in pop — to say he’s earned it would be an egregious understatement — but his active, aggressive support of 3RDEYEGIRL shows that he’s not interested in clearing the path to musical immortality alone. If you can hang with Prince, you’ve got to have your wits about you and your fingertips adhered to your weapon of choice, be it a howling guitar, a convulsing bass, or a drum kit capable of deafening armies. You’ve got to treat those manmade vessels like extensions of yourself, just as he does. Your vocal cords and instruments have to carry the same strength, and they’ve got to wail as one when the time comes. And that’s exactly what 3RDEYEGIRL did: Like Prince, each riff, fill, rollicking bass groove, and thunderous beat was organic and true, a pure expression rooted in a desire to rock and leave the listener changed and gasping for breath when it’s all over.
As for what’s next for Prince & 3RDEYEGIRL, we’ll see. Shortly after the first show on March 14, concertgoers found two new tracks waiting in their inboxes, the moody “What If?” and “The X’s Face.” Prince & 3RDEYEGIRL plowed through a series of surprise shows for a HIT & RUN tour in the U.K. last year, and it’s only a matter of time before the next city on their itinerary is announced and Prince fans will have mere minutes to snatch seats, as they did in Louisville. The HIT & RUN tour’s first night ended on a hometown high and with the drop of new tunes, so if this is the precedent, it’s sure to be a slow-burning, sensational ride.
Prince & 3RDEYEGIRL will play two more shows at Louisville’s Palace Theater March 15.