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Watch Prince's best live performances of all time
By
Del Cowie

Published

April 21, 2017

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This Friday, join Drive host Rich Terfry as he celebrates the career and legacy of the legendary Prince with a deep dive into his most critically acclaimed album, Sign o' the Times. Tune in for songs and stories behind the influential album, as it turns 30 this year: Friday at 6 p.m. (6:30 NT), on CBC Radio 2 Drive.

If you've ever seen Prince live, you'd know he was a consummate live performer. Through his entire career, which spanned almost 40 years, Prince blended his virtuosic multi-instrumental background, studio craftsmanship, stellar songwriting and knack for reinvention with his amazing live show.

Onstage, Prince showed off his technical proficiency on the guitar and his ability to lock his various band iterations (the Revolution, New Power Generation et. al) into regimented yet unassailably funky grooves. Beyond his talents as a band leader, he was a charismatic frontman displaying the full range of his versatile voice, replete with inimitable tics and irrepressible dance moves when needed.

I did see him myself more than once, and the last time was at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto in 2011. The previous night, Prince had played numerous encores after the main show was over (some put the number as high as six). He didn't do as many for the show I attended, but I do remember Prince and his band running offstage within arm's reach of me to an exit close to the stage. It was close enough for me to wonder and scrutinize how he managed to move so well in those wedge-heeled shoes and flared pants.

Prince was still performing at the peak of his powers, days before his death, and below we've collected just some of his best and most memorable performances that span his entire career.

1. American Bandstand, 1980

Prince's first appearance on U.S. national television was on Dick Clark's American Bandstand in 1980. At the time, Prince was 21 and on his sophomore album, but in the uncomfortably awkward interview he conducted with Clark, Prince says he is 19 years old. Prince is reportedly shy, but Clark's querying of his record deal and his multi-instrumental abilities clearly catches the artist off guard, making him seem aloof. Prince, who had already performed his hit single "Wanna Be Your Lover," goes on to perform "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad," showing that the stage is where he is most comfortable.

2. Capitol Theatre, 1982

This black-and-white video of a full Prince concert was recorded in 1982 in Passaic, N.J., after the release of his fourth album, Controversy,just as Prince was on the cusp of releasing 1999, which would vault him to superstar status. The hour-long video features him performing songs from his most sexually suggestive musical period, including "Do Me, Baby," "Jack U Off" and, of course, "Controversy." If you can't stay for the whole duration, at least watch the version of his early hit single "I Wanna Be Your Lover," below.

3. James Brown and friends, 1981

During this 1981 James Brown concert at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, we get to see three departed music legends hamming it up in the space of five impromptu minutes. First, Brown calls Michael Jackson onstage. After a brief vocal improv session, Jackson defers back to Brown, who beckons Prince onstage. Not to be outdone by any of the two other musical legends, Prince is carried onstage by a handler, takes a guitar from one of Browns's bandmates, lets out an ungodly shriek and, after playfully taking off his shirt, he exits the stage by basically destroying one of the lamp post props. Memorable, given that he actually doesn't perform a song.

4. American Music Awards, 1985

If there's an example of peak Prince, this must be close to it. With Purple Rain dominating the pop-cultural landscape in 1984, 1985 was Prince's coronation year at award ceremonies. He performed the album's title track at the American Music Awards, winning several awards and notably beating Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson in the process.

5. Grammy Awards, 1985

At the Grammys in 1985, Prince continued his Purple Rain dominance but did so performing the jam-fuelled "Baby I'm a Star" on the biggest awards show of the year, proving he was at a point where he could do whatever he liked, whenever he liked.

6. Arsenio Hall Show, 1991

By the early '90s, Prince had an enviable back catalogue due to his prolific output during the '80s following Purple Rain's release. During an appearance on the late-night show of longtime friend Arsenio Hall, Prince performed multiple songs and pulled out all the stops. The dance moves are peerless, and the band instrumentation focuses on funkier arrangements as Prince mines the iconic intro of "Kiss" to maximum effect and performs then-new songs like "Cream."

7. MTV Video Music Awards, 1991

All people could talk about after Prince's performance of "Gett Off" at the MTV VMAs was his yellow outfit — which had butt cheek cut-outs.

8. Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, 2004

Prince completely owns the stage here in a performance alongside Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and Tom Petty. No small competition, but Prince, who was being inducted alongside George Harrison, enters the ensemble's performance of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and completely steals the show with his guitar solo. At the end, he throws his guitar in the air and for some reason it isn't clear where it ended up, as if to underline the sorcery of the performance.

9. Super Bowl halftime show, 2007

Prince's Super Bowl halftime show is generally regarded as one of the best performances at one of the world's biggest sporting events. The rendition of "Purple Rain" — in the rain — was instantly iconic.

10. Saturday Night Live 40's afterparty, 2015

Prince performed at Saturday Night Live's 40th anniversary show afterparty in 2015 and, despite the fact that he was surrounded by a slew of stars including Chris Rock, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Jimmy Fallon and Haim, he was clearly the focal point of the room. From the moment he utters "Dearly inebriated" into the microphone — before launching into a bluesy, slowed-down version of "Let's Go Crazy" — it is a classic Prince performance that even Fallon's hoarse background vocals couldn't ruin.

Follow Del Cowie: @vibesandstuff

More to explore:

8 songs you didn't know Prince wrote

King: 5 things you need to know about one of Prince's favourite bands

k-os shares a Prince story worthy of a Dave Chappelle sketch