John, what’s the thing you’re doing?” he asks John Blackwell, as if he were asking his drummer to pass a bag of potato chips. “Your time changed again and it got boomy and ugly.” To a guitarist he calmly advises, “You should throw that pedal away … it’s just taking up too much space frequency-wise.” To his bassist: “I wouldn’t thumb this, either. Mute it. Mute it.”
No big deal. The musicians comply and recalibrate. A little accent on the cymbal here, an up-stroke on the guitar strings there, and everything moves a little closer to the sound Prince imagines.
The singer wants to hear different combinations of instruments — guitars with drums, then with keyboards and bass; voices a cappella, then with tambourines and drums — and he is constantly tweaking, adjusting voicings (“give that last chord more value”), humming individual parts and then seeing how they gel. Much of this band has been with him for several years as he’s traveled the world during his extended “Welcome 2” tour, usually playing long runs in major cities where he can vary the set lists nightly, explore every contour of his songbook and cover artists and songs both legendary (Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music“) and surprising (Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover”). He wants more musical options ready for Chicago, and that’s why he’s pushing so hard at this rehearsal.
“Only a few days left,” he says, almost to himself. Right now, he is aiming for absence, trying to carve space into the music where it can become something sexy and sinuous. At one point, to illustrate a point he invokes the Chuck Berry movie “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He describes a scene where Berry goes ballistic, accusing someone of changing his amplifier.
“Chuck Berry went ‘St. Louis’ on my boy,” Prince says, throwing an air punch and laughing. The band cracks up. “Movie night!” one of his backing singers cackles.