Thursday night, Prince's first band revisited the era that made his name and made a case for the role they played in his success.
There was no denying the passage of time Thursday night when The Revolution played The Joy Theater. The members of the band that got Prince from Dirty Mind and “Head” to Parade and “Kiss” hung up the brocade decades ago, and the cotton candy confections White Rained atop their heads have been replaced by more sensible ‘dos. Lisa Coleman once looked like the dark, funky Stevie Nicks, but Thursday night she opted for Patti Smith’s black jacket, tie and white dress shirt, while Wendy Melvoin’s earnest demeanor and sensible glasses screamed guidance councilor. Matt Fink still wears the forgiving-but-never-stylish hospital scrubs, and Brown Mark tried to bridge the years in a black trench coat and black baseball cap backwards—would Prince have ever thought that was fashionable?—but it only shaved off a decade at best.
The looks were the only markers that suggested the passing of time, though. The Revolution still has the musical crispness to be funky at any speed, and the willingness to take on challenges. They could have easily played a greatest hits show, but instead they reached back to Jill Jones’ self-titled debut album for “All Day All Night,” and included “Computer Blue” from Purple Rain and “Anotherloverholenyohead” from Parade—neither signature songs from those albums. In a way, the entire show answered a challenge: Can you do a Prince show without Prince?
The answer: More or less, and with style, energy and confidence. “Purple Rain” could have used Prince, but not due to any shame in Melvoin’s game. Her lead guitar was as emotional and dramatic as Prince’s, but she kept the song to a sensible length when it could have easily stretched out for another few minutes before anyone would feel like she was trying to upstage Prince. He would never have shown that kind of restraint.
Singer Stokley Williams of Mint Condition—introduced simply as “Stokley”—filled in some vocal blanks when the song’s ranges didn’t suit Melvoin or Brown Mark. His energy helped make “Uptown” explosive, and wisely, he stayed in his lane and away from Prince’s moves and style. Instead, he bounced around the stage with a more conventional exuberance, and he showed vocal chops for more than just the conventionally funky songs. He handled “When Doves Cry” as well, which was beautifully brittle with the first verse played solely on keyboards. When the band called out “Grace Gibson from New Orleans” to sing “Baby I’m a Star,” she briefly trended when the Joy Googled as one to see who she is. Her performance was fine, but her modest-for-Vanity 6 attire pinged a costumed note that the night otherwise avoided.
I tend to be skeptical of reunion shows, and it’s possible that I fell for this one because of my history of affection for Prince. My guess though, is that the night and tour had more to do with their relationships to him and each other. The core band lived a rare rock ’n’ roll moment, playing with a genius who was just starting to roll out his vision. For them, the good and bad of working with a demanding artist with a brilliant, extremely personal vision at the moment that the world started to catch on was a bonding experience that remains to this day. The desire to reconnect is understandable, as is the desire to share it with those under 30—really, under 40—who were too young to experience that period of Prince in real time.
Perhaps for that reason, the show didn’t have a self-satisfied We can still do this! moment, and the night never felt like we were there to validate the band after all these years. Instead, the night’s vibe was one of sharing with each other and the audience. We got to hear the songs in concert as Prince did with the very specific sonic textures intact—minus one guitar and his vocals, of course. The only interpretive moment came during Melvoin and Coleman’s duet on “Sometimes in Snows in April,” which they dedicated to Prince and the victims of the shooting at Marjery Stoneman Douglas High. Prince’s original relied on the delicate interplay between his voice and piano to such an extent that no one in the band in that show could have followed in his footsteps without coming up obviously short.
Instead, in the song and throughout the show, The Revolution gave the audience the part they could—a great band playing great music from a historic moment, and their performance honored that moment.
Earlier this week, Alex Rawls interviewed drummer Bobby Z about the evolution of The Revolution.