The Revolution didn't come to party. Prince's best-known backing band reunited for the first time in five years Thursday night at First Avenue, the Minneapolis club their late bandleader made famous in Purple Rain, to publicly acknowledge his irreplaceability on the same stage they once shared. The night was struggle to determine how best to simultaneously mourn his absence and honor his groove.
"I encourage every one of you to take every one of these songs and make them your own," urged guitarist Wendy Melvoin even before the warped church-organ drone of "Let's Go Crazy" filled the room. Her message was clear: Dearly beloved, we are gathered together to get through this thing called a Prince tribute, and it's not going to be easy for anybody.
The Revolution set out to recreate the music of Prince rather than re-interpret it. The complimentary synth styles of Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink, the funk-rock bottom of bassist Mark Brown and drummer Bobby Z., Melvoin's artful rhythm work – this was unmistakably the Minneapolis Sound of the early Eighties.
What was missing seems almost too obvious to mention. No one on stage could fill Prince's stylish high heels, and no one was dumb enough to try. And yet, there were songs that needed to be sung, and the Revolution explored all their options.
To start, they tried going it on their own, with Melvoin and Brown sharing vocal duties. This task seemed at times too much for Melvoin, the most visibly distraught band member, who also had to make the most Prince-like sounds that she could on her guitar while additionally serving as group spokesperson. The evening's most poignant moment was hers: a hushed "Sometimes It Snows in April," fingerpicked on acoustic guitar and accompanied only by Coleman's keyboards and harmonies, with vocals verging on emotional collapse. Throughout the night, Melvoin's ragged competence was both harrowing and heroic.
They tried bolstering their sound by introducing other Prince sidemen. Buff and sleeveless, Prince's boyhood friend and first bandmate André Cymone brought real charisma and a sharp bolero hat to the stage, and he popped out a wicked bass solo on "Let's Work." A beaming Dez Dickerson, the Revolution's original guitarist, recreated his solo on "Little Red Corvette" with aplomb. The band probably couldn't have tackled the Dirty Mind and Controversy jams they did without Cymone and Dickerson.
They even brought in a ringer: Philadelphia neo-soul singer Bilal added welcome vocal muscle to "The Beautiful Ones," nailing the ecstatic screeches of its climax, bounding through "Private Joy," and holding together a sometimes misshapen "When Doves Cry." And yet, the more he approximated Prince's vocals, the more clearly he wasn't Prince.
Everyone had loosened by the first encore, "Kiss," followed by an extended "Baby I'm a Star" during which the women from Prince's past filled the stage. Apollonia was there – she had also emerged earlier, regal in a shimmering golden gown, to toss hoop earrings to the crowd. So were Prince's ex-wives, Mayte Garcia and Manuela Testolini, and Wendy's twin sister, Susannah Melvoin, Prince's closest romantic partner during the Revolution's heyday. Prince's youngest brother Omarr Baker came out too, and tried unsuccessfully (but indefatigably) to coax the rest of his family onstage.
The final encore was inevitable. As they have for the four months now, the initial quivering chords of "Purple Rain" were fraught with anticipation, and Bobby Z's snare hit pierced the shimmer like that moment a roller coaster pauses before taking the first plunge. The Revolution's version was wobbly and soulful, and felt, as every public sing-along and tribute rendition of that anthem has felt since Prince's death, cathartic and final.
We should know better by now of course – each time "Purple Rain" starts again, we just find a new way to mourn. And so will the Revolution. They have two more First Avenue shows to soldier through this weekend.
"Let's Go Crazy"
"Do It All Night"
"Little Red Corvette"
"Sometimes It Snows in April"
"The Beautiful Ones"
"When Doves Cry"
"Baby I'm a Star"