Saturday, May 14, 2016

Prince at Bennett's Lane

On April 21, 2016, the musician known as Prince passed away. The exact cause and circumstances of his death are unknown at time of writing, although it has been widely reported that he was addicted to prescription painkillers, and that these may have played a part.

Prince toured Australia five times, and had been as popular and successful here as everywhere else. The outpouring of grief at his passing was public, and prolonged.

But rather than focus on his sad, premature demise, today we will revisit Prince's role in a famous piece of local music folklore. The occasions (yes, more than one), when the multi-millionaire, multi-platinum selling, pop megastar played secret shows at humble Bennett's Lane nightclub.

Flyer from Prince's first Australian tour; Sydney, 1992.
Prince first toured Australia in 1992, as part of the 'Diamonds and Pearls' world tour, which kicked off in Japan, and then ventured to a handful of European cities. The clamour to see Prince live locally was enormous; he had been one of the worlds most popular musicians since his album '1999' had been released in 1982, and a visit to Australia seemed long overdue

Backed by his new band, The New Power Generation, the tour focused mainly on tracks from the 'Diamonds and Pearls' album, including the eponymous title track, and hit single 'Cream'. An extraordinary six shows were sold out quickly at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, and five at Melbourne's Tennis Centre.

On stage in Australia, 1992.
The tour was a massive success, but it would be 11 years before Prince would return.

Souvenir tour book, 2003 Australian tour.
In 2003 the artist, though still popular, was no longer the chart topping phenomenon of a decade before. Displaced from the apex of the pop tree by a younger generation of stars, Prince responded with a shorter tour (2 arena shows in Melbourne and Sydney, and some smaller gigs) and a set list that played like a greatest hits collection.

The two shows in Melbourne were set for 21 and 22 October, at Rod Laver Arena.

Bennett's Lane Jazz Club.
Before the first of these Prince, who was known to enjoy playing secret shows in small venues from time to time, decided to find a local bandroom where he could play a warm up gig. He settled on Bennett's Lane, a well established local club just off Lonsdale Street, best known as a jazz venue. Exactly why he chose the venue is not known, although the club had attracted at least one big name before; Harry Connick junior had played warm up shows at the club several times on his own tours.

Not knowing anyone at the venue, Prince simply showed up late Sunday night and explained what he wanted:

While the show was never formally announced, and was only arranged the night before it happened, word still got out. By 8.30pm on Monday evening, 100 people were queuing outside Bennett's Lane, hoping to see the show or, at least, catch a glimpse of the star.

In the end, about 200 people paid $20 each to cram into the small club and watch Prince and his eight piece touring band:

It was a lengthy set, featuring classic tracks like 'Kiss' and 'When Doves Cry', that didn't finish until deep in to the small hours. Prince's subsequent arena shows were sold out, and the performances were well received.

Prince onstage at Rod Laver arena, 2012.
Another decade on, and Prince was back in town on the 'Welcome 2 Australia' tour, again playing two shows at Rod Laver arena. After the first of these, on May 14 2012, Prince again made his way to Bennett's Lane, this time looking for a place to wind down and relax after the high energy performance of his earlier set.

Second time round, the secret show didn't even start until 2am, with the club announcing the news on their Twitter feed:

You can also note the increase in ticket price compared to 2003, although the venue announced the following day that all of the profits had been donated to charity. 

The lateness of the hour also provided a different atmosphere to the previous surprise gig; a smaller, more relaxed crowd, with Prince and his band focusing on funk tracks, and free form jamming. Prince himself played the piano, and the drums, as well as singing.

Both secret gigs have attained legendary status, in the rich musical history of our city.

Prince on stage in 2016.
Prince returned one final time to Australia, bringing his 'Piano and Microphone' tour here in February this year. 

Now the raucous, high tempo pop and funk of his earlier hits had given way to a more intimate style, as Prince played  for the first time without a backing band. His choice of venues reflected the change in approach; instead of arenas he played the more elegant State Theatres in Melbourne and Sydney.

The tour was not without its bad reviews and difficult moments. Punters in Melbourne complained of a short set length (about 80 minutes) in light of sky high ticket prices. And the artist was obviously effected by the death of a former girlfriend, singer Denise Matthews, that was announced shortly before his first Melbourne show.

But his new approach and material was mostly well received, a fitting send off for an artist who had re-invented himself a number of times. Final word can, perhaps, go to Meg Evans, eyewitness at both of Melbourne's secret shows, and someone who saw Prince at close and intimate range:

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