It’s been almost two years since the shocking death of music legend Prince.
Soon after he died, his most famous band, The Revolution, went on tour as a way to grieve and celebrate their former leader’s genius. The group — made up of Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Matt Fink, Mark Brown (aka Brownmark) and Bobby Z — is familiar to many. It was immortalized in the Oscar-winning 1984 film, Purple Rain, which practically defined the music of the 1980s.
This year, a new tribute tour is giving Prince’s devoted fans a way to capture that purple magic one last time. The Revolution will play in Philly on Friday, March 9, at SugarHouse Casino on the Delaware River waterfront.
In advance of the show, Billy Penn caught up with guitarist Wendy Melvoin, one of Prince’s closest friends, via phone at her home in Los Angeles to learn what working with the legend was really like.
Where were you when you learned about Prince’s death?
I was in my backyard in L.A. having a conversation about a show for NBC that I was working on. Everything was great and then my phone buzzed. Bobby Z, texted me: “He’s gone.” I’ve had family members pass away unexpectedly like that. There’s a gross familiarity to the attack of that news. I just told everyone on the call “I gotta, go, Prince is dead.” I just crumbled to the ground.
How often did you see or talk to Prince before he died?
The last contact I had with him was six months before he passed. After that, he sort of disappeared. I knew that wasn’t good.
What’s on the set list for the Philly show?
We’re only performing music from our era. We don’t go further than “Sign O’ the Times.” We wanted to choose songs where we didn’t have to battle difficult songs. We don’t do “Darling Nikki.” It’s just impossible to do that vocal. Most of the time, the audience is singing the whole song anyway, so we could step back from the mic and practically just mouth the words. It’s like a campfire singalong.
Is ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ cathartic or uncomfortable, with its eulogy style intro?
We can only find true irony in it. There’s a macabre sense of irony, but it’s joyful to play it. There’s the rub — like a good book, it has both comedy and tragedy.
Hardest song to play now?
There’s a guitar solo in “Computer Blue” that was always very difficult for me because it was created through Prince’s hands, and it’s in his muscle memory. It’s always been a struggle to master that solo. It continues to be my albatross.
The hardest song to do and play in a way that isn’t phoning it in and keep authentic is “Purple Rain” because it’s so iconic. That’s the crown jewel for people and you have to be so careful you’re not playing it like a cover.
Prince fans are…
…a trip. They are deeply deeply invested in their love, admiration and interest in his entire life. Everyone in the band says they have to watch out for me at the meet-and-greets. I can get sucked into the vortex of their devotion.
What are people most curious about Prince?
The question I get mainly is “What’s he like?” But it’s a huge question really. It really means, “What was it like to be friends with the person who changed my life?”
I try to be careful with my answer because our heroes can disappoint us. I don’t mean to be cryptic, but you have to be careful with Prince fans. They don’t want to hear anything that doesn’t match their picture.
Did Prince really play basketball with Charlie Murphy and then serve pancakes, as described on Chappelle’s Show?
Yes, I was there. We were in rehearsal for either the Parade tour or Around the World in a Day. We had this huge complex, and the guys would go outside and play. Prince was a beast of a basketball player. He was like Spud Webb. What Charlie Murphy said really happened. Prince had a great sense of humor about it. He loved it.
Where were you on Dec 31, 1999? Were you at a party where they played “1999”?
That’s very funny. I was living in Hollywood with Lisa [Coleman] and we weren’t going out, but our windows were open. The neighbors were having a huge block party and they were blasting “1999.”
What guitar do you play?
I’m using my white Gibson ES-335 that I used on the Parade tour. It was the only guitar Prince tried to buy from me. I’d tell him I’m not selling it.
Your favorite Prince tribute performance by a rock star?
Bilal singing “Beautiful Ones.” [2016 BET Awards]. That’s was one that did it for me. Everyone else pales in comparison.
How do you feel about being part of such a hugely iconic cultural moment in time?
It fucking blows my mind to think that way. It’s total cognitive dissonance. Is that really what happened?
If Prince is looking down from heaven, what’s he thinking about this tribute tour?
I’m not one to believe in that kind of thing. If I was to set aside my disbelief, I’d say he’d be 100 percent proud of this. When we were first putting our feet back in the water to see if the magic was still there, we said if this sounds like shit, we’re not doing this. We had to ask: Is this authentic or bullshit? As soon as it sniffs of something other than authentic, I know I’m out.