The water was especially warm Friday night when Prince’s longtime backing band, the Revolution, opened their show with “Computer Blue,” as they customarily have done on their current reunion tour. Much of the crowd packing out every last seat of L.A.’s Wiltern Theatre had taken time in the preceding hours to fire up their computers and download the spanking new deluxe edition of “Purple Rain,” the release of which made this something of a national holiday for Prince fans, even as the local arrival of the Revolution made it a civic fiesta.
Alas, their version of “Computer Blue” was not the expanded, wonderfully indulgent 12-minute one found on the long-awaited “vault” disc in the new “Purple Rain” collection, as the band proceeded into “America” and “Mountains” without a moment’s pause to drain the bath. But that left time to explore more of Prince’s golden 1981-86 era in a generous 23-song set — one more than the group has been doing on most of the rest of the tour, thanks to the tribute duo Princess (Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum) sitting in on a pre-Revolution bonus track, “When You Were Mine.”
At the Wiltern, Wendy Melvoin spoke with the crowd about the reasoning behind the tour: “A lot of people asked us, who’s gonna sing, who’s gonna be him…? The answer is consistently: [No one] … What we can offer you guys is the opportunity to hear what made him feel good, so that you can take these songs and own them in a way that maybe might not have happened otherwise if we hadn’t decided to do this right now.” The balancing act, she explained, was to try to honor Prince and the band simultaneously — the unspoken undercurrent to that surely being Prince’s fairly inexplicable resistance to pleas for a Revolution reunion tour all the way to his death. There’s an obvious bittersweetness to fans, not to mention the musicians, finally getting what they wanted, now, in a tour that serves as joint homage to the dearly departed and those still fleshly and funky.
Of course, there needs to be a more developed answer as to who will “replace” Prince. The solution for this tour has been to spread the vocals out enough that the crowd focuses on the communal aspect more than worrying much about who’s singing at any given time. Most of the leads on the party numbers are divided between original bassist Brown Mark and guest singer Stokley Williams of Mint Condition, with Wendy handling lone ballad “Sometimes It Snows in April,” or part or all of the tunes in which Wendy and Lisa played a key vocal role, like a verse of “Let’s Go Crazy.”
As for who would replace Prince as guitar god? That one was easy, as Melvoin peeled off the guitar solos of “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Purple Rain” like she’d created them. As for duo partner Lisa Coleman, you had to laugh every time the members of the band would exhort “Go, Lisa, go, Lisa, go!” as the prelude to… a subtly beguiling piano solo that utterly eschewed the deep-funk of the rest of the tune to go quietly free-jazz on everyone. Needless to say, no one left feeling any less heroine worship.
Prince was always a bit of a dichotomy, to the extent that he liked to foster the idea of the band-as-collective with outfits like the Revolution and New Power Generation, even as he left little doubt about his ultimately dictatorial role as a tough taskmaster. The Revolution’s shows no doubt feel liberating for the musicians, who get to recreate the precision of that music — and a few of the dance steps (or, in “Let’s Work,” a choreographed squatting break!) — without a whip-cracking leader. Most of the band stuck to the Prince dress code, with Williams looking particularly natty and keyboardist Matt Fink is traditional surgical gear, but you could guess that Prince might not have cottoned to backing singer Susannah Melvoin (Wendy’s twin sister, and Prince’s ex) taking the stage in a fetching set of overalls. Freedom takes many forms.
Even if Wendy made it clear in some of her comments that the tour is meant to honor the band as well as Prince, there was no shortage of commentary devoted strictly to the former boss. The most emotional moments came when the rest of the band departed to leave Wendy and Lisa to perform “Sometimes It Snows in April.” “We realized that the song that Lisa and I and Prince had written 30 years prior on April 21st at Sunset Sound is the same night he died 30 years later,” she said. “So when people say, what’s the meaning in that? There isn’t any meaning in it. It is what it is. And it just validated that we now need to sing it for him and for you. But you have to help us sing it. That’s the rule.” At another point, she asked the audience to create “a smoke signal here in Los Angeles, so he can hear you.”
Even after the band had long since performed “Raspberry Beret,” Melvoin at one point felt the need to stop the show to slowly recite the song’s words, as an example of her affection for Prince as a lyricist: “It seems that I was busy doing something close to nothing, but different than the day before, and that’s when I saw her — ooh! — I saw her, she walked in through the out door… F— me, that’s good.”
And at a special “Purple Rain”-themed party on Saturday night at NeueHouse Hollywood, the group (minus Coleman, who was on a long-planned vacation with family) were present for a screening of the film and a special presentation.
The group was introduced by Spike Lee — who threw a huge outdoor party in Brooklyn celebrating Prince’s birthday earlier this month, and who was wearing a white T-shirt with the bandmembers’ names on it. He said, “We have something for you never got,” and the group members were presented with special plaques from Warner Bros. for the album, apparently for the first time. In a brief acceptance speech, Wendy said the group are keeping his legacy alive through touring — as Friday night’s concert proved.