The grounds of Malahide Castle weren’t so much bathed in purple on Saturday night as they were lightly speckled with maroon: if nothing else, you won’t see a larger gathering of Galway GAA shirts in a Dublin park this summer.
Prince’s first visit to Ireland in nine years, following the last-minute cancellation of his Croke Park gig in 2009, was sold as a greatest hits show in response to slower than expected sales – though at almost €100 a ticket it’s no surprise that many left the decision until the very last minute. It certainly was a greatest hits show, but a quick glance at Prince’s recent setlists across Europe shows he’s prone to dip in to his catalogue of classic singles more or less at will.
Still, it was surprising that, rolling out on stage just after 8pm, he chose to open with ‘Gold.’ The saccharine pure pop number from his mid-nineties stint as an unpronounceable symbol is familiar enough to please the most casual fan (Prince initiated the call-and-response routine with the audience from the first chorus instead of just the last), yet it’s rare enough to keep the diehards guessing.
The early part of the evening was frontloaded with some of the Minneapolitan’s more iconic tracks: ‘Let’s Get Crazy,’ ‘1999’ and ‘Little Red Corvette’ followed in quick succession to keep the carnival atmosphere in motion.
Prince dressed in a long white robe that suggested he was more the leader of a gospel choir than a rock n’ roll singer, a look that made more sense when he began to work in the covers. A shortened version of ‘Raspberry Beret’ was followed with a medley of Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ and his own production for the Time, ‘Cool.’ A full complement of gospel singers sang out a brief interval with Bob Dylan’s lesser-known ‘Make You Feel My Love,’ from which Prince re-emerged in more traditional, though still flamboyant, dress.
He could hardly have timed the entrance of his greatest composition, ‘Purple Rain,’ any better, playing the reverb-soaked opening chords just as dusk set in and raindrops began to sprinkle from the sky to create the perfect slow jam atmosphere. Prince was quite restrained throughout, happy to let his band mates take the spotlight, but ‘Purple Rain’ allowed him to show off his immense skill as a guitarist – something for which he’s not given half as much credit as he deserves.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, the nine-piece jazz ensemble who had warmed up the crowd hours earlier, joined the New Power Generation on stage for the so-so ‘Musicology,’ before Prince invited what seemed like the entire front row on stage for a tongue-in-cheek (given the ethnic profile of the audience) rendition of Wild Cherry’s ‘Play That Funky Music.’
The latter part of the set was less obviously loaded with hits, though this didn’t stop Prince, in a rare moment of hubris, making a break for it, declaring: “We gotta go – I’ve got too many hits! We’d be here until tomorrow if I played them all!” Prince being Prince, however, this still left time for little-known numbers like ‘When Doves Cry,’ ‘U Got the Look’ and ‘Controversy.’
The singer’s conversion to the Jehova’s Witnesses means that foul-mouthed classics like ‘Pussy Control’ and ‘Sexy Motherfucker’ are not even considered anymore, but his original rendering of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U,’ a duet with Shelby J that he graciously dedicated to Sinead O’Connor, is more than a worthy alternative. Sign O’ the Times was well-represented, with ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ a particular highlight, though the title track was unadvisedly cut short and he cruelly teased the crowd with just a few seconds of ‘Housequake.’
Small gripes with song selection and sequencing aside, the setlist was undeniably strong. The sound quality was as good as I’ve heard at an outdoor venue in Dublin for years, yet there was still a lingering sense of what might have been. Prince boasted before the show that he’d play for three hours if they’d let him, yet the band had barely played two when they left the stage half an hour before the 10.45 curfew.
Nevertheless, it was a tight set that only occasionally lagged and nary a complaint was heard on the DART home.