Prince’s old band resurrects him through his songs

MINNEAPOLIS, Sept 4 — On April 21, as news spread that Prince had been found dead at his Paisley Park compound in Chanhassen, Minnesota, a crowd began to gather 21 miles away at First Avenue, the Minneapolis club where he had filmed the concert scenes for the 1984 film Purple Rain. Thousands of fans flocked to what became a giant all-night block party memorial, and local acts took the stage to play covers of Prince’s songs.

Last Thursday night, Prince’s band the Revolution arrived on that stage for the first time since 2012 to honour, and grieve for, one of their own. For three months after his death, the group had remained silent about details of a reunion, finally confirming a two-night stand (which grew to include a third) in early July. “I need this as much as you,” bassist Mark Brown, aka Brownmark, wrote on Facebook at the time of the announcement. “Sharing the music with you is what will heal.”

Thursday night’s show, the first of the brief run, offered the crowd of 1,500 the chance to experience Prince’s music as performed by the musicians who helped define it: Wendy Melvoin (guitar); Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink (who’s called Dr., on keyboards); Brown (bass); and Bobby Rivkin, known as Bobby Z (drums); as well as bassist-guitarist André Cymone and lead guitarist Dez Dickerson, who had played with Prince in the years before the Revolution.

The group had previously reunited at First Avenue for a benefit for Rivkin after he had a heart attack in 2012, and according to Nathan Kranz, the club’s general manager, Rivkin did most of the legwork in staging the current reunions. Dickerson said there was talk of getting back together at the Los Angeles memorial for Prince in May: “Things were being sorted.” The shows were finally booked in mid-June.

“Look at those smiling faces! That’s what we want to see,” Melvoin said from the stage Thursday night, perhaps trying to nudge the mood toward celebration from something more sombre, before the band surged into its opening song, Let’s Go Crazy. She added, “I expect to hear everyone singing.”

She got her wish, on and off the stage. With no Prince anchoring the band, group vocals — harmonies, co-leads, trade-offs — were plentiful, and Melvoin stepped up front for rockers like Let’s Go Crazy and Raspberry Beret. With Cymone and Dickerson joining the band, they recreated 1999, alternating singers on each opening line. Cymone took lead on Little Red Corvette, and a quick survey of the club showed that most everyone in it was singing along; ditto, later, for Kiss, which the Revolution played in a way that was close to the original recording, unlike their boss, who had constantly changed the arrangement.

A number of guests bolstered the show. R&B singer Bilal was a welcome surprise, having not only aced the BET Awards’ Prince tribute but also one at Carnegie Hall in 2013. At First Avenue, he proved a mellifluous falsetto for hire, especially on The Beautiful Ones, whose climax he lifted with his nimble squall. Fans spied other familiar faces onstage: Susannah Melvoin (Wendy’s sister, Prince’s former girlfriend and the lead singer in the Family, a band he masterminded); Omar Baker, Prince’s brother (resplendent in a white fedora and light-up shoes); Purple Rain co-star Apollonia (who introduced the encore by tossing gold hoop earrings to the crowd, a motif in the movie); and Prince’s ex-wife, Mayte Garcia.

The crowd members were largely in their 40s and 50s, many from out of town. One of the first in was Scott Bogen, a Twin Cities native who once won US$1,000 (RM4,000) impersonating Prince for First Avenue’s early-80s lip-syncing contest. He has lived for the last two decades in Big Sur, where he is a volunteer fire-fighter, and came back here for the reunion. “We’ve been fighting the fire for five weeks straight,” he said, referring to the West Coast wildfires. “My property burned, but my house survived.” Bogen said it was fortunate that the fire didn’t claim the tambourine Prince signed for him in 1981.

There were mementos available at the Revolution’s merchandise table — four T-shirts, two hoodies — where a line of a dozen that had assembled by 7.13pm had tripled by 7.20. (The club’s doors had opened at 7.) But many in the audience were wearing two T-shirts that weren’t for sale: Designs featuring a list of the Revolution members’ names or the contents of a lunchbox in Starfish & Coffee, a song on Prince’s 1987 double album, Sign o’ the Times.

It’s hard to imagine the Revolution tribute’s taking place anywhere other than First Avenue. Prince had used the club as a home performance base since 1981, and it was the spot where he debuted the song Purple Rain in 1983, before it made many memorable appearances in the film the following year. A replica of the motorcycle from the movie stood where pinball machines once did. A few fans wore re-creations of Prince’s Purple Rain trench coat-and-moustache look.

Much of Melvoin’s stage patter revolved around the idea of the show’s being not just in Prince’s memory, but for his heavenly delectation. After a cheer following America, she focused on the crowd. “Everybody hear that?” she asked. “Let’s help him hear this.” When Melvoin and Coleman played Sometimes It Snows in April as a duo, quiet and acoustic, Melvoin struggled to keep her composure; it was a clear highlight, particularly when she sang, “Always cry for love, never cry for pain,” to some deeply felt shouts from the crowd.

At the end of the night, one thing stood out — that the band didn’t even try to copy Prince’s singular guitar solos, in particular for Let’s Go Crazy and Purple Rain, the inevitable show closer. The lack of flash for Purple Rain wasn’t total (there were actual lighters in the air), but it nevertheless gave the song a rawer charge than usual. It was stark, yet fitting. Who could ever replace their man? — The New York Times