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Review: Prince at SXSW

Posted 7:53pm on Sunday, Mar. 17, 2013

Prince just kept coming back.

First one encore, then another, and then another. ("You got somewhere to be?" he asked after the second encore. "You got a curfew?") The hour was nigh on three a.m. before Prince finally relinquished the expansive stage set up inside La Zona Rosa Saturday night (well, technically, Sunday morning). The Minneapolis musical polymath just couldn't help himself.

The exuberant music spilled off the stage and into the exclusive audience -- Samsung, which bankrolled the much-anticipated evening to cap off a week at South by Southwest spent promoting its new Galaxy smartphone, only allowed 1,300 people into the club in downtown Austin for an unforgettable finale to the 27th annual SXSW music festival and conference.

Shortly after midnight, Prince, backed by a 40-foot-long LED screen and flanked by a 22-piece band, launched into a set that showcased his hits (1999 was an early, face-melting highlight) and a smart array of covers, including Michael (Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough) and Janet (What Have You Done For Me Lately?) Jackson. He even dipped into the Time's catalog, giving Jungle Love a full-tilt workout, and generally showed up almost every other act who set foot on a stage in Austin over the previous five days.

"Don't make me hurt you," Prince warned the ecstatic crowd midway through his extended run of encores. "Do you know how many hits I got?" Apart from his virtuosity as a vocalist (his killer falsetto was in fine shape, but he blended beautifully with his coterie of back-up vocalists as well), the 54-year-old Prince also allowed the super-tight NPG band to shine with individual moments, illustrating his generosity as a musician. It was, simply, one of the most arresting, exhilarating displays of live music I've seen in my life. (Hey, if ever a concert cried out for hyperbolic praise, it was this one.)

While Prince never once touched a guitar, it seemed a rather small nit to pick with what was otherwise a blistering showcase of funk, pop and rock that had the room roaring from first note to last. In a year littered with high profile, semi-secret gigs (Saturday night also saw tough tickets from Justin Timberlake and Smashing Pumpkins), it was Prince who illustrated the value of artistic elitism in a setting ostensibly designed to ward it off.

Being that good, that often, can be its own reward, and one to which not enough modern bands aspire. However, if you're lucky enough to be in the room, witnessing such mastery is a genuine treasure for music fans.

The night got off to a hot start with an hour-long set from A Tribe Called Quest, which had the capacity crowd waving its hands in the air and screaming along as Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Muhammad and Jarobi White ripped through the influential hip-hop group's back catalog.

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