Prince launches Canadian tour, doesn’t disappoint

To open the first show of his cross-Canada tour at the Air Canada Centre on Friday, Prince put his nimble band through a nearly 30-minute funk workout while he danced, gyrated and strutted across the stage with the easy grace of a performer half his age.

TORONTO — To open the first show of his cross-Canada tour at the Air Canada Centre on Friday, Prince put his nimble band through a nearly 30-minute funk workout while he danced, gyrated and strutted across the stage with the easy grace of a performer half his age.

Finally, he stopped, bathed in green light.

“I gotta bask in Toronto’s love,” he said to, yes, an adoring crowd.

The break lasted only a moment before he was back at it, but he would have plenty of other opportunities to bask in the audience’s warmth.

Over the course of a three-hour-plus performance, the 53-year-old pop icon tirelessly took the game crowd on a journey through three decades of his inventive, idiosyncratic catalogue with a joyous, relentlessly entertaining show.

The performance kicked off in appropriately dramatic fashion. With the arena dimmed and the only illumination provided by the neon flashes of the lights lining the stage — pulsing on and off in time with the drums — each member of Prince’s band emerged one after the other from beneath. Eventually, Prince poked his head out too, arms crossed over his chest, clad all in loose-fitting black with shades fixed to his face and gold jewelry dangling from his neck.

The stage was shaped in his signature glyph — that symbol Prince was formerly known as — lined with bright lights, with circular high tables set up around its perimeter, allowing a cluster of patrons the opportunity to sit and sip their beverages just a few feet from the action.

Of course, few in the audience were content to sit. From the beginning, the high-energy show inspired loose-limbed workouts in every corner of the arena, even the wilderness of the upper deck. Prince himself, meanwhile, rarely stopped moving, pulling off a flurry of moves that were both slick and seemingly spontaneous.

He elicited perhaps his biggest cheer of the night at the end of his 1986 hit Kiss, shimmying mute in the spotlight, his hips swivelling furiously from side to side. He wandered every inch of the stage over the course of the show, showing no signs of fatigue — even during his third of six encores, he stood on a piano and hammered out a firecracker cover of Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music.

“This used to be my city,” he said at one point, referencing the fact that he once owned a home here with his Toronto-born ex-wife. “Let’s see if it still is.”

Since the late 1970s, Prince has released new records with an almost workmanlike regularity — in total, he’s issued more than 30 studio albums (the most recent being 2010’s aptly titled 20Ten), so he was able to order up Friday evening’s setlist from a vast menu of material.

But his emphasis this night was on his best-known hits, to the audible delight of an audience that seemed most familiar with his ’80s and early ’90s output, shrieking at the opening notes of such well-loved tracks as Raspberry Beret, Take Me With U, Cream, I Would Die 4 U, and a mammoth take on When Doves Cry.

Certified six times platinum, Prince’s 1984 classic Purple Rain is his best-selling record in Canada, and a languid performance of the title track was a swaying singalong highlight, with purple confetti bursting in air as Prince launched a virtuoso guitar solo around the epic tune’s mid-section.

Though the show came very highly polished, it still retained a sense of unpredictability that arena gigs sometimes lack. During a fiery take on Cool — from the Time’s 1981 self-titled debut — more than a dozen people joined Prince on stage, surrounding him in a tangle of dancing limbs.

And when one of his backup singers launched into an impromptu take on Michael Jackson’s dancefloor classic “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” Prince staggered and covered his mouth as if genuinely, happily surprised.

Prince himself offered plenty of unexpected moments too. The seven-time Grammy winner — proficient at soul, dance, rock, pop, R&B — shifted from song to song and genre to genre, at one point hopping from a cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” to his “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Later, the apocalyptic hedonism of “1999” transitioned mid-song into a gorgeously wrenching take on “Little Red Corvette.”

His deft, powerful band was game for these sudden shifts, yet it was Prince’s own musical prowess that wrested the spotlight. The Minneapolis native, who routinely plays every instrument on his recordings, seems to command every style and musical tool he dabbles in with a restless mastery.On Friday, he focused on guitar heroics, tossing off several stunning solos to very different effect. On “A Million Days,” culled from 2004’s “Musicology,” his soloing was anguished and expressive, while 1984’s Technicolor wonder “Let’s Go Crazy” — a sentiment the audience seemed to take as a direct order — featured downright blistering fretwork at its close.

He rarely addressed the audience between songs, preferring instead to sprinkle his shouted instructions and affirmations over the music. He was all about sustaining the relentless life pulse of the show, never allowing the energy to sag for even a moment.

“Y’all happy?” he questioned in one representative bit of banter. “I’m happy too!”

Prince was set to perform again in Toronto on Saturday before winding across Canada and wrapping his tour in Victoria on Dec. 17.