By Chris Willman
June 25, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT

I wouldn’t begin to guess how many thousands of concerts I’ve been to over the years, but I’d never gotten out of a show at 5:10 a.m. before. So the opening night (opening morning, actually) of Prince’s pricey residency at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel represented a happy first for me. The main set started at 12:30 and lasted for almost exactly two hours. Then the after-hours jazz-funk jam kicked off at 3:30 and came to a close 100 minutes later when Prince playfully told everyone to “get out.” At that point, literally just moments before sunrise, there were only about 30 of us left, out of an initial audience of about 200, greeting the dawn with valet ticket in outstretched hand. What, the 170 or so losers who ducked out early couldn’t sleep when they’re dead?

Going to a Prince show — at least one of the smaller-scaled, non-arena, curfew-free gigs he’s been favoring lately — requires commitment. (Pity the fool whose last words to the sitter were, “We’ll be home in a few hours.”) Fans have puzzled over the meaning of his favorite number, 3121, besides the fact that it’s bound to appeal to the king of rock numerology by virtue of how its digits add up to the most spiritually significant number, seven. But I think I’ve parsed the real meaning of 3121: It’s the hour, in military time, that he actually, really aims to hit the stage each night. (You know the old saying: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him what time Prince is going on.”)

In all seriousness, another meaning is that he can now sell tickets for $3,121. That was the announced price, anyway, for a pair of dinner tickets, though rumor has it that the idle rich have been slow to pony up for those packages for the seven-gig engagement. On the other hand, the “cheap seats” — a mere $312.10 each for SRO, non-dinner tickets — have been going like pancakes. And honestly, if you’re a real fan with the stamina to endure to the end and get your money’s worth, that’s not a bad price point. Even if Prince skipped out entirely on the jazz set that ends the evening (and he does pop in and out at will), the chance to stand less than two yards away from sax legend Maceo Parker — of James Brown fame — while he blows his horn at length at 4 in the morning… well, that’s worth about 300 smackers all by itself. The kids’ college fund can wait, just like sleepytime.

addCredit(“Prince: John Shearer/”)

The main part of the festivities began with Parker and three other hornplayers making a procession through the hotel’s Blossom Room, NewOrleans-style, to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Theirswould not be the only audience interaction, as Prince himself wouldsoon be wandering through the room and — once, this would have beenunthinkable — pressing the fresh, in his own coy fashion. You mighthave to be Nikka Costa to actually have him play a guitar solo in yourlap, though. I suspect that Prince may hold back in future shows fromencouraging audience participation among the visiting celebrities: Hegave the mic to Nas at one point, only to find the rapper all butcompletely speechless; he passed it over to Erykah Badu, hoping forbetter results, but she drew a blank, too. Improv ain’t everybody’sgame, obviously.

(Speaking of celebrity guests, who also included Penelope Cruz, Rick Fox, Hillary Swank, Topher Grace, and Prince’s SNLimpersonator Fred Armisen: Was it just a mirage that, mere yards away,in the middle of this fairly intimate room, we saw archenemies Diddyand Suge Knight, sharing a couch? No, it was not. We don’t want tooverstate Prince’s messianic qualities or get so blasphemous as to deemhim the Prince of peace, but truly, the lamb shall lay down with thelion.)

There was one other hangup: The Blossom Room, which hosted the veryfirst Academy Awards banquet back in the pre-televised ’20s, wasn’tbuilt with rock acoustics in mind, and there were some fairlyunforgivable sonics this first night. (There’s nothing like beingwithin spitting distance of Prince’s high heels, but feeling like hisvocals are being broadcast from one of the guest rooms upstairs. Therest of the band sounded okay, so it wasn’t necessarily an unfixableproblem.) One online review I read also complained about the lighting;on several occasions, Prince demanded that the two spotlights be turnedoff, saying, “We’re gonna do this thing in the dark.” But personally Iloved the moments when this incredibly intricate funk jam was takingplace by the ambient equivalent of candlelight, even if you had tostrain a little to make out the visual hurricane that was Prince’s twinminiskirted go-go dancers. Does your idea of an intimate dinner withyour beloved, and whatever goes after, involve floodlights? Minedoesn’t, and the fact that he’d want to keep the lights dim helpedconvince me, romantic sucker that I am, of the sheer specialness of theoccasion. (Or maybe he was just making it harder for Diddy and Suge tosee each other? Well, whatever.)

The set list included a handful of obvious hits (“Purple Rain,” withCosta wailing the first verse, and “U Got the Look,” with no duetpartner), relative obscurities (“Sssh,” “Get on the Boat”), one cover(Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”), one cover of a Prince cover (“NothingCompares 2 U”), and nothing from his upcoming July release. The modewas the full-scale soul revue he’s favored for most of hispost-Revolution tours, with a band that includes the most muscularfemale drummer I’ve ever seen, Cora Dunham; I wonder how many ends ofthe earth he had to scour to find probably the only femalepercussionist in the world who’s even more of a looker than Sheila E.In the hour between the main show and the jazz set, all the celebritiessplit — did I mention that they’re all losers? Yes, even you, Armisen —leaving the rank-and-file to move over to a different stage in thehotel’s lobby that made even more magnificent use of the world-classmusicianship and just about put the primary set to shame. What startedout as traditional, free-form jazz ended up in a singalong of “BrickHouse” with Prince on fuzztone bass. I know I won’t hear a better bandin my life, and I know that wasn’t just the energy drinks talking (thewait staff didn’t serve anything else after 2).

According to sources in the Prince camp, there won’t be a traditionaltour for this album; he’ll focus on more residencies in major cities,and some one-offs in small burgs. I’m of a mixed mind about thisapproach, especially when the price and difficulty of procuring ticketsensures a mixture of the nouveau riche andI-would-die-(or-go-bankrupt)-4-U geeks, while possibly leaving the moretypical but just as deserving fan out of the loop. But you can’t faultPrince for trying to shake up the existing model and create a moreimmersive experience, something that isn’t just athis-or-the-multiplex? date-night choice. He wants a commitment — body,mind, spirit, soul, wallet, and timepiece. Nobody else could be sodemanding, but nobody else is the most exciting live performer alive,either. Nothing compares to dude.