The Revolution didn’t plan on reunion tours after Prince’s death from an accidental drug overdose in April of 2016. But as they performed more tribute concerts together, the shows gradually morphed into a tour last year that’s turned into more tours, and the experience has been celebratory enough for both them and the audiences that the group will continue doing it for as long as it feels right. To that end, they’ve recruited managers Richard Bishop of 3AM and Jeff Jampol of JAM Inc. (For some great stories from the group’s early days, check out “Prince the Prankster: Marc Anthony, Bobby Z and More Remember His Humor (and an Epic Food Fight).”)
Variety caught up with the group’s Lisa Coleman and Bobby Z after the Revolution’s show-stealing set at the Arroyo Seco concert in Los Angeles last month to talk about the tours, the legacy, the music, and what’s next.
How have these songs changed for you in this format?
Lisa Coleman: We started out trying to stay kind of close to the [original] arrangements of the songs and not stray too far from them, but as we’ve gone on and played more gigs we’ve stretched out more. We’re used to doing that: When Prince was around, every night was a different show, really. We had to be prepared for wherever he wanted to go, so I think we get a little bit bored playing the same [arrangements]. But sometimes we’ve been surprised by fans: They’ll start a chant from the record [version] before we’re even in that section of a song, or something like that. But we’ll go with it.
Are there songs that have taken on new meanings for you, after all these years?
Bobby Z: We played for a relatively short period of time at the height of all this. So to do these arrangements … it’s kind of like when I saw [Paul] McCartney play Beatles songs live. These are songs you thought you’d never hear live, and they’re authentic versions. [Prince’s] DNA is still in all this, because we were with him and did all this with him. For me, some of the lyrics definitely take on different meanings now that he’s moved on. And also, for me, it’s trying to perfect these songs because Prince songs are live: Every time you play it, there’s something you can add: “Wow, I never did this before.” They’re all so simple, complex and beautiful at the same time.
Coleman: Yeah, like we end up extending “Controversy,” taking solos and remembering a lot of jams and ways we used to play together. And it is different from being in your 20s and everything is so important and difficult and intense. Now, from an older standpoint it’s not as difficult. It’s difficult in different ways, emotionally and technologically, but the playing is easier.
Z: Most people are really happy to hear the music and it gives us the energy — it’s incredible. In certain ways, obviously, it means so much to so many people just to see five/sixths of what it was. It’s really something, so we’re grateful that people still love this music and that we’re here to do it now that we’re older.
Does it feel liberating to play these songs as more experienced musicians?
Coleman: Exactly, yeah, it’s funny how uptight I was. I feel so much more free as a musician now.
Z: When we were originally doing it, the stuff was being created [often on the spot] and it did have a tremendous amount of attention, and he was making history every moment. Now, we get to play this stuff in a more mature way. He used to say, “You become better musicians as you get older.”
It must have been hard at the time to have perspective on what the music meant to be people. Is that clearer now?
Coleman: We used to call it a “fish bowl.” We felt like we were contained in this little bubble everywhere we went and we didn’t really know how it was affecting the world. So now, 30 years later, we get to see it from this other side, where people are crying and telling us how much the music affected them and bringing their families — parents, old people, little kids. It’s just amazing how many people we touched and how many people loved Prince and the Revolution.
Z: It was a lockdown world — he created this world that everybody wanted to get into. The biggest stars in the world wanted to get in to see and talk to Prince. He was a magnet and we protected each other.
Where do you take it from here?
Coleman: That’s what we’re trying to figure out, because it came out of nowhere and was born out of an emotional trauma. Now that we’ve gone through this grieving process and we’ve been able to share it with all these people, it’s starting to evolve now to the next phase. So that’s why we hired management and we’re trying to do it with class and not be a tribute band.
Z: We’re gonna take it to Europe in February. We did 35 shows on a tour last summer and now we’re doing more. Even though he didn’t like to look back, it’s fun for everybody to celebrate him and play this music. Hopefully we just keep doing it and we learn as we go. He’s only been gone for two years. We’re all just getting used to this world.
During those first shows after you reunited, was there a moment where you realized people were really responding?
Z: The first shows had a funeral quality to them, there were a lot of mixed emotions for me. We were trudging through the mud playing “Purple Rain” — there were so many emotions. But to the audience — we found out quickly this means a lot to people.
Coleman: Those first three gigs were so difficult, like little odysseys, like a journey for us. But getting the response we got from the fans — that is the reason we’ve kept going.