Leave it to Prince.
Minnesota's biggest music star plays his smallest advertised gigs in his hometown in front of 275 people at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis, and Wednesday's opening show turns into essentially a rehearsal.
Officially, it was billed as "soundcheck/drummer audition." That was accurate, to be sure. It was also the first Prince show in the Twin Cities to start precisely on time -- ever. And it was arguably his jazziest local effort.
Color this 80-minute set as cool as it was curious. (Click here for a review of Wednesday's second set.)
Announced at lunchtime Tuesday and sold out in an hour, Prince's three-night, six-show stand at the Dakota is his first high-profile Twin Cities affair since July 7, 2007, when he pulled off three performances -- at Macy's downtown, Target Center and First Avenue. Prince promises that each night at the Dakota will have a different approach.
Wednesday's was an all-instrumental rehearsal. Prince didn't sing or say anything to the crowd and spoke infrequently to his musicians. He preferred to conduct by pointing, snapping his fingers or tapping his feet. He spent most of the night on electric keyboards but picked up his guitar for two extended excursions.
The 54-year-old sported a modest Afro, round sunglasses, a dark shawl and silver-lamé shoes, with wedgie-style clear heels with blinking red lights in them -- custom-made, high-end adult shoes like your kids might wear. He bowed to the fans at the beginning, encouraged them to clap at certain times and blew a two-handed kiss at the end.
Police officers were stationed outside and inside the Dakota. The Princely rules required patrons to check cellphones at the door. With tickets costing $70, this was a mostly middle-age crowd that included Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith.
At exactly 8 p.m., drummer Ronald Bruner started playing by himself. Five minutes later, Prince and bassist Andrew Gouche joined in. Bruner and Gouche have worked together of late with Chaka Khan. Gouche joined Prince last year, but Bruner got the call for an audition last week. Six horn players and pianist Cassandra O'Neal also participated as Prince found different grooves and moods while running Bruner through his paces.
There were echoes of George Duke, Jeff Beck and even Steely Dan. At one point on his piano, Prince created the beginning of his 1987 hit "Sign o' the Times," but he soon switched into a different groove. Prince tested Bruner -- and smiled at and applauded for him often.
Thursday's shows -- billed as a late-night vibe, for up to $150 a ticket -- will feature a different drummer. And the rumor for Friday's "surprise" gigs -- up to $250 -- is that Prince will unveil his new all-female backup band.
But with Prince, the rumors are more common than his performances in his hometown.