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Every single Prince fan has a personal story behind how s/he got that way. Mine: From the moment I played a Purple Rain cassette doing ninth-grade homework in ’84 to graduating college in ’93, my ambition was to grow up to be Prince. I bought sheet music and practiced his songs over and over on my out-of-tune Kemble upright piano. I wore my grandpa’s cream cashmere coat to high school in the Boogie Down Bronx like I’d sauntered out of Under the Cherry Moon. Teenage journals are packed full of Prince references like he was my first love. TMI, but I may not have figured out how to be me until I was 22, at (coincidentally) the same moment Prince stopped acting like Prince, changing his name to the male-female biological symbol fans wore on necklaces like crucifixes.
The Revolution, Prince’s backing band during his years of cultural and commercial domination, played the B.B. King Blues Club last Friday to a relatively small crowd of 1,000 who, no doubt, each had their own heartfelt, cringingly embarrassing version of the above. #TeamPrince was and forever will be an almost cattily exclusive club, and the Revolution tour — returning to Webster Hall on May 3 — is for collective mourning and celebration. Prince’s unexpected death from an opioid overdose came a year and one week prior to the Revolution’s NYC memorial, and sadness was never far below the surface for anybody in the house. “We need to kind of create a place for all of us to land,” said a bespectacled Wendy Melvoin midway through the 23-song set. “It’s sort of our own little shiva.”
Guitarist Wendy, bassist Brown Mark, keyboardists Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink, and drummer Bobby Z re-creating tunes from Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, and Parade sometimes sounded (and certainly looked) like a damned good middle-age cover band playing Prince tunes. Some lyrics were subtly forgotten, and a command from Brown Mark for 25 James Brown–style hits at the end of “Let’s Work” broke down around 13. But the Revolution, on a music-historical note, were the most practiced, stop-on-a-dime accomplished, rock- and new wave–tinged funk band ever. So some moments of magic, like Wendy’s rip-roar solo at the climax of “Let’s Go Crazy,” were inevitable.
“Y’all don’t know this one!” exclaimed a zealous fan as Lisa’s repetitive keyboard run launched the band into the rare, unreleased “Our Destiny.” Which led into “Roadhouse Garden,” an even scarcer, funkier track much adored by the hardest of hardcore Prince lovers. The smackdown Bobby Z put into the backbeat of “Kiss” would’ve made their fearless leader proud. Snatches of piano from the extended “Let’s Go Crazy,” familiar from the opening performance scene of Purple Rain, popped up in the middle of “Delirious.” Likewise, “Controversy” at some point contained the melody to “Mutiny,” a funk track from protégés the Family that Prince reclaimed for Revolution live shows when that group dissolved. The sly ear candy for attentive fanatics (meaning most of the audience) went over well.
More secret-handshake moments came with all the dance moves associated with different Prince songs, something you may never think much about until you’re in a sea of beautiful ones crouching down at the same moment during “Raspberry Beret” or “Computer Blue,” side-stepping in sync to “When Doves Cry,” or hand-signaling choreographed gestures to the chorus of “I Would Die 4 U.”
“I’m sure a lot of you in here, if you haven’t met him, would think to yourself, ‘I wonder if he would like me,’ right? I’m sure that he would,” Wendy shared, introducing the delicate, beloved piano ballad “Sometimes It Snows in April.” The song — about a death and the longing for the one who’s passed — was written by Prince, Lisa, and herself on April 21, 1985, she said, exactly 31 years to the day Prince would pass away in an elevator at Paisley Park Studios. Fingerpicking her acoustic guitar over Lisa’s piano and harmonizing, Wendy sang as audience sniffles gave way to tears. The evangelical rock celebration of “Let’s Go Crazy” followed, but failed to mask the melancholy in the air. What could?
By comparison, “Purple Rain” served up a sobering be-here-now reality check. The Revolution (the Revolution) stood before us playing the song that surely made many of us cry in our private moments since last April, without their hero and ours. Because he’s gone. And so we could only harmonize together through the end, and slowly sway.