This was the first time I saw Prince at Sam’s (later renamed First Avenue).
It was a scheduled show with tickets and everything, but I saw four other Prince shows at Sam’s/First Avenue that were not ticketed, announced shows. They were called “surprise” shows, but no one who attended was surprised. We all got the same phone calls the day of the show.
But the first one was different because Prince had worked out a set for the tour, and they came out and did the show the way they did it everywhere else on the tour. Well, maybe not exactly the same. I’m sure the extended encores were a treat for the hometown folks.
On the other hand, the “surprise” shows were rarely a planned-out set. They were more like loose jam sessions, or in some cases, like a cover band playing in a garage. You know, if your local garage band featured Prince, the Time, Sheila E, and whoever else was in town.
All of the unannounced shows were great. Everyone would be on stage at the same time, they’d trade instruments (imagine Prince playing drums as the Time do two or three songs, or playing bass on Uptown, it was like that), goof around, spill drinks – but the music was always spot on, of course.
Those were good, but the absolute best unannounced show I ever saw was in the 7th Street Entry, the tiny punk rock hole in the wall connected to First Avenue. It was a few nights before I left the Twin Cities to move to California (October 25th, 1984).
It was a three-piece, just Prince, Brown Mark, and Bobby Z, and they played a bunch of hard rock jams and a few Dirty Mind-era guitar-based songs. The Entry is tiny, like a 200 capacity max, and it was packed. There must have been 300 people in there. There was a door between the Entry and the main room of First Avenue, and they had to lock it to keep anyone else from getting in.
To give you some idea, the stage in the Entry was about 18 inches high, and the furthest point from the stage in the room was probably 50 feet away. Tiny. I’d seen a hundred punk shows in there, but seeing Prince on that stage was surreal. I felt like I was witnessing something extraordinary. Because I was.
One other “surprise” show I’ll never forget – we were all packed into the main room waiting for Prince. The word had gone out that he’d be playing, so everyone was there. We waited and waited, it seemed like a couple of hours, then the lights went down, everyone went berserk, the curtain opened, and — a little kid in a Prince costume danced around for about a minute.
Then the curtain closed, the lights came back up, the DJ Music started, and we all looked at each other like, “Wait, what just happened?” It was hilarious in retrospect, but not very funny in the moment.
For the record, here are the concert list entries for the other three Prince shows I saw at First Avenue that were not practical jokes:
– 1981 OCT 5 – Prince (surprise gig billed as “Controversy”) – Sam’s
– 1982 MAR 8 – Prince (with The Time and other players, surprise gig) – First Avenue
– 1983 MAY 16 – Prince (surprise gig) the night after Minnesota Music Awards – First Avenue