I was eight years old when Purple Rain came out, and it didn’t seem strange to me that Prince was from Minnesota. Everyone important, it seemed, was from Minnesota. Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz. Future president (or so we thought) Walter Mondale. Herb Brooks. Why wouldn’t Prince’s purple house be in Chanhassen?
Of course, I later learned, it was highly unusual for someone like Prince to come from Minnesota…but then, it would have been highly unusual for someone like Prince to come from anywhere. The most enormously talented star of his generation, Prince defined the sound of pop in the ’80s. With the same force of personality that allowed him to credibly insist, as a teenager, that he be sole performer and producer on his debut major-label album, he also helped define what Minneapolis would mean forever after.
Purple Rain spun an intoxicating web of myth around Minneapolis — and, specifically, around First Avenue. The 1984 movie made the club look like the coolest place on earth; and if the Kid and his band actually had to compete for top billing, the caliber of talent it attracted had to be astronomically high.
There have already been innumerable Prince tribute shows at venues around the world, and the sole “official” tribute concert is coming up next month at the vast U.S. Bank Stadium, but there was bound to be a unique resonance to the Revolution reuniting on the very stage where Prince’s legend was made. If you think of Prince in one single place at one single time, it’s at center stage in the Mainroom in winter 1984, pointing out at an enraptured crowd with his guitar slung ready for action.
It would have been enough for the Revolution to have simply done it, to have just got back together and knocked a few songs out — but they did it right, with a thoughtful set list, a carefully chosen set of onstage guests, and a buoyant yet wistful mood that inextricably mixed sadness and joy.
The fact that a key Purple Rain plot thread involves the Kid learning to appreciate the musical gifts of his bandmates made it all the more poignant that, in Prince’s absence, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman have become the Revolution’s most recognizable faces. In the film, it’s Wendy and Lisa who contribute the musical foundation of the title song, and onstage Saturday night, Wendy reminisced that “I was 18 years old when Prince made me step out on this very stage and play the intro to this song for ten minutes straight.”
It was impossible not to think, hearing Wendy tell that story, that Saturday — the third of the band’s three-night reunion stand — might have been the last chance we’ll have to hear the original Revolution play “Purple Rain” on that stage. That may or may not be the case, but it will certainly be a long time before that particular group of Prince’s musical family members will reassemble at First Ave, or perhaps anywhere.
In addition to the Revolution’s classic lineup — Wendy, Lisa, drummer Bobby Z, keyboardist Dr. Fink (in scrubs, natch), and bassist Brownmark — the band expanded to incorporate guests including early Revolution member Dez Dickerson and André Cymone, a childhood friend who became one of Prince’s first bandmates.
R&B singer Bilal, who performed with the Revolution for the first two shows of the run, was absent on night three. (Read Andrea Swensson’s review of night one, and Cecilia Johnson’s take on night two.) Instead, the band invited the flamboyant and spirited indie pop singer Kimbra onstage to sing “Private Joy” and “Delirious.” For the encore, Kimbra returned along with night two favorites Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum (a.k.a. Princess, the most famous Prince cover band ever) and Susannah Melvoin (Wendy’s sister, and a member of the Family and fDeluxe). Apollonia and her bandmate Brenda Bennett also came onstage to say a brief, heartfelt hello.
Maybe it was just that everyone had got used to the idea of playing these songs together again, but towards the middle of the Revolution’s main set (which mirrored the first two nights’, except for the deletion of Bilal’s take on “Beautiful Ones,” the addition of “Delirious,” and the substitution of “When U Were Mine” for “When Doves Cry”), the house’s energy started to flag a bit. After the opening salvo of “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Computer Blue,” then what felt almost like a single extended jam that ran from “Do It All Night” through “Party Up,” the singalong renditions of “Little Red Corvette” and “1999” started to feel a little pro forma.
After that, though, things got intimate, as Wendy and Lisa performed their two-person take on “Sometimes It Snows In April.” As she had on the previous two nights, Wendy took the opportunity for a little storytelling — this time recounting the first time Prince met Lisa. He was leaning towards not hiring her, said Wendy, until he heard her playing piano.
“And the rest is history,” concluded Wendy. “They never really had to speak at all, with words. All Lisa had to do was put her thumbs — which, on both hands, can press three keys on each thumb — and make the fattest chords, harmonically, you ever heard. And it changed his life.” At this point, Lisa started to stagily sink beneath her keyboard rig, embarrassed at the attention.
That rig had a laptop mounted atop it, but Lisa paid it little attention and at times it seemed to be hanging on for dear life, wobbling on its mount as Lisa and her bandmates demonstrated how they used to knock those classic songs out manually — with some help from a drum machine, which helped create Prince’s unclassifiable signature blend of acoustic and electronic.
Why Kimbra as a guest singer? Well, she’s a superfan who’s credited Prince as a major inspiration — and then, there’s also the fun fact that it was Prince who handed her the Grammy she earned with Gotye for their duet on “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Though she may not have been as familiar a face to the members of the Prince Army less savvy with contemporary music, Kimbra brought an undeniable jolt of energy to the stage when she appeared in a typically eye-popping costume (giant platform boots, mesh top, what looked like sequined boxing shorts) and gloried in the opportunity to sing these songs with this band.
Along with the debonair (and impressively lithe) Cymone, Kimbra was a reminder of how important theatricality was to Prince. He had the chops, but he also had the old-school showmanship that made him delight in playing with his audiences. Cymone, who on Friday reminisced about playing gigs with Prince and their band Grand Central pretty much anywhere (including the Minnesota State Fair) they could possibly play, also knows how to wrap a crowd around his finger. “You want me to play? Is it okay with you if I play a little bit?” he teased early in the set before strapping on a bass (the instrument he played with Prince) to trade solos with Brownmark.
First Avenue was never really the club it was depicted as in Purple Rain, but it was in fact the center of the Minneapolis music scene, and it remains so — a vital venue for both national and local acts to play sets where they now know (and often mention) that they’re walking in the footsteps of a legend. Prince could have chosen to set his story in L.A. or New York, but instead he chose to honor his hometown and shine the light of his genius on First Avenue.
The story of Prince and Purple Rain is a reminder that — while talent is bestowed by God, genes, and/or good timing — legends are made. We have the chance to make them, together, every time we celebrate the music we love. This week at First Avenue, the Revolution returned to the stage they helped to make world-famous — then partied with us, mourned with us, burnished Prince’s memory, and made some unforgettable new memories of their very own.