Remembering Prince’s super intimate pop-up gigs at small Australian club venues
11.08.2021

Remembering Prince’s super intimate pop-up gigs at small Australian club venues

Prince Melbourne
Words by August Billy

In celebration of the new, posthumously released Prince album, Welcome 2 America, we take a moment to remember the Purple One’s habit of playing impromptu shows at small Melbourne venues.

Prince was never a conventional superstar. His first single was 1979’s ‘Soft and Wet’, which set the stage for one of pop music’s most sexually-overt songwriting catalogues. But the artist born Prince Rogers Nelson could also write just as articulately about love, religion and politics—the latter being the central focus of Welcome 2 America, which was recorded in 2010. 

Born in Minneapolis in 1958, Prince was one of the most electrically brilliant musicians of his era – he could play just about everything and do so better than just about anyone else. This led him to act as the sole instrumentalist on many of his earliest albums, including the 1982 breakthrough, 1999. But despite such skill, it’s not contrarian to say Prince’s foremost area of excellence was as a bandleader. 

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During the mid to late-‘80s, Prince struck up enriching partnerships with such mavericks as Sheila E, Wendy & Lisa and drummer Bobby Z. His albums with the Revolution – including Purple Rain and Around the World In a Day – are widely considered his best, and his partnership with the New Power Generation defined much of his post-1990 output. 

Prince was also a prodigious live performer and he was particularly generous to Melbourne audiences over the years. He played four shows at the State Theatre in February 2016, just two months before his untimely death. The seated Arts Centre venue was a relatively intimate choice considering Prince had favoured Rod Laver Arena on each of his previous visits. 

That said, despite his customary privacy and enigmatic reputation, Prince was no stranger to intimate performance settings. He slotted in a number late-night secret shows during his 1992, 2003 and 2012 Australian tours, all of which linger in the collective memory as cultural milestones. 

Bennetts Lane Jazz Club

Prince’s appearance at Melbourne’s Bennetts Lane Jazz Club in 2003 is the stuff of legend. A couple of days before a sold-out gig at Rod Laver, word got out Prince was planning a pop-up set at the tiny inner-city jazz bar (which has since closed its doors). Approaching midnight, the line stretched out of the titular laneway and onto Little Lonsdale St, with eager punters crossing their fingers the rumours were true. 

Then, just after midnight and for a meagre $20 door fee (no more than $30 in today’s money), a sea of Purple acolytes rushed through the doors to see an explosive, jam-heavy set from Prince and the New Power Generation, which at that time included drummer John Blackwell and saxophonist Maceo Parker. 

Musician Sophia Brous told Noisey she’d “never heard groove like that before.” The crowd was crammed in and made up of Prince diehards, local musicians and students looking for a good time. “It was difficult to move …. people were hanging off the walls,” said Brous. “It was ecstatic and beautiful.”

Welcome 2 Australia

Prince was next in the country for his Welcome 2 Australia tour in 2012. The run started in Sydney, where, following two sold-out arena shows, Prince announced a late-night after party at the swanky George St club, The Ivy. Prince and the NPG were on hand to supply the event’s soundtrack, while Seal (in town for The Voice) and Flavor Flav (taking part in Groovin the Moo with Public Enemy) both made guest appearances. 

Melbourne fans were expecting an equivalent late-night extravaganza. However, fear rippled through the music community after a supposed after-party at Crown Casino was abandoned at the last minute. But then, in the early hours of May 29, Prince and the NPG resurfaced on the Bennetts Lane stage. 

Marketing for the show essentially happened in real time. Official word came via NPG tour DJ, Rashida, who tweeted at 1.43am that Prince was “on stage @ bennetts lane jazz club <Melbourne 2nite!” The venue also made a social media announcement, but not until the band had already started. Luckily for latecomers, Prince and the NPG remained onstage until close to daybreak. 

The performance featured a number of songs helmed by NPG vocalists Shelby J, Liv Warfield and Elisa Fiorillo, including covers of Rihanna’s ‘Rude Boy’, Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ and the Mary J. Blige classic, ‘Be Happy’. Prince stayed away from his radio hits, preferring such excellent deep cuts as ‘Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)’ (from 1999), ‘Strange Relationship’ (Sign O’ The Times) and ‘Love 2 the 9’s’ (Love Symbol). 

During an ecstatic two hour-plus performance, Prince jumped from guitar to bass to piano to drums, while also making time for a drum solo from Blackwell and interpolating songs by Parliament, Bill Withers and Janet Jackson.

They don’t make them like they used to. R.I.P. Prince.

Welcome 2 America is out now.