There are an infinite number of ways that The Revolution going on tour and playing Prince songs barely a year after their leader’s death could have gone badly. The hole in the center of the stage and the sound could have been too big. His absence could have made it all feel too inappropriate or, worst of all, exploitative. Or, they simply might not have been up to the task, some 30 years after they’d last played together with him, of performing those complicated, difficult songs that they used to execute with the military precision of which he relentlessly demanded. It all could have been too sad.
But on Friday night at a densely packed B.B. King’s in Times Square, none of those things happened. The band was razor sharp, inspired, and knew exactly what the audience wanted: a concert that was a celebration, a reunion, a public mourning — and perhaps most of all, a release. And from the very beginning of the set, The Revolution made everyone in the crowd a participant.
The house lights went down and the announcer said “Ladies and gentlemen, the Revolution,” just like in the “Purple Rain” film. The beat from “Computer Blue” kicked in as the group — guitarist Wendy Melvoin, bassist Brown Mark, drummer Bobby Z., and keyboardists Matt Fink and Lisa Coleman — walked onstage. Wendy, now the de facto frontperson purely because she’s the main singer (and the most talkative), strode up to the microphone and said, “This is about taking these songs back. Everyone’s wondering ‘Who’s gonna sing this, who’s gonna sing that’ — you are.” Then Brown Mark, playing the id to her superego, yelled, “Are you ready to party?!”
The crowd erupted as Wendy and Lisa completed the song’s introductory dialogue — and they were off. The Revolution roared through an opening salvo of songs that had the audience raving: “America,” “Mountains,” “Automatic,” “Take Me With U.” While there was a refreshing mix of ages, races, and genders (kind of like a more middle-aged and modestly dressed version of the crowd in “Purple Rain”), the house was generally packed with dedicated, die-hard, longtime Prince fans; the band originally booked the tour cautiously, but this thousand-odd-capacity show sold out so quickly that they added another show at the 1,500-cap Webster Hall on May 3rd. These fans, who bought up the tickets so quickly, didn’t just know every word, a lot of them yelled out the tricky “Hey!”s in “Automatic” and the “Guitars and drums on the one, HUH!” in “Mountains” perfectly on cue.
It was one of the happiest concert crowds we’ve ever been in.
The group was then joined by Mint Condition singer Stokely Williams, the only guest vocalist of the night (others, such as Bilal, are playing different shows on the tour). A formidable frontman in his own right with solid dance moves, Williams not only knew Prince but was respected by him. He handled most of the songs that Prince sang in a higher range, and the torrid opening salvo continued with “Uptown” and “DMSR,” both of which got rousing singalongs from the crowd.
The pace then slowed down as Lisa announced a song that “You may not know or you may not” — and the group launched into a medley of two hitherto-unreleased and hard-to-find tracks from the forthcoming “Purple Rain” deluxe edition: “Our Destiny” seguing into “Roadhouse Garden.” (Not surprisingly, this was lost on more than a few audience members, but the woman standing next to us practically lost her mind.)
Everyone was back on board for the next song — “Raspberry Beret” — and the nearly two-hour-long set continued with hits (“1999,” “Let’s Work”), fan favorites (“Erotic City”), and songs that weren’t hits but were still integral: Wendy introduced “Paisley Park” as “the essence of what he tried to say and give to you guys”: a haven, a mystical, mythical place that he kept writing about and ultimately created for himself and the people around him.
After a funky take on “Controversy,” Wendy spoke about when she and Lisa wrote with Prince the song that’s become his elegy: “Sometimes It Snows in April.” “What has happened for a lot of us, especially The Revolution, is that he lives inside of us,” she said. “And when I’m recording something that’s completely different from this world [Wendy and Lisa are Emmy-winning film and TV composers], I think to myself, ‘Is that good enough? Would he like it?’ So we need to kind of create a place for us to land — our own little shiva.” She wept as she finished speaking and struggled a bit through the middle verses.
But the uplift came right away, as the band raced through the songs they and Prince would often use to close their sets: “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Kiss,” “When Doves Cry,” and, of course, a soaring “Purple Rain,” which had hundreds in the house slowly waving their hands, continuing as the band said goodnight and left the stage. Of course there was an encore, and of course it was “I Would Die 4 U / Baby I’m a Star.” And sure, everyone wished Prince were still here — none more than the people onstage. But since that can’t happen, joyous communal wakes like this one will do just fine.