When Prince Rogers Nelson left this earth in April of 2016, plenty of the obituaries and essay-length remembrances discussed his insanely high level of musical productivity, genre-skipping, and the scores of musicians who both worked for him and he collaborated with over the decades.
But none of those groups have held a bigger place in history – or the hearts of fans both casual and diehard – than the Revolution. From 1983-1986, the group backed Prince on stage and in the studio for albums including Parade, Around the World in a Day, and of course the career making (for both entities) mega-success that was Purple Rain.
The classic Revolution lineup of Wendy Melvoin (guitar/vocals), Brownmark (bass/vocals), Lisa Coleman (keyboards/vocals), Dr. Matt Fink (keyboards), and Bobby Z (drums) also featured prominently in the film, both in concert and acting sequences. The former is what really made the film sizzle and were most noted by audiences, despite a bit of film trickery.
“Those concert scenes are lip synched, but you wouldn’t know!” Bobby Z says today. “And that was the greatest magic trick we pulled off. That gives you a glimpse of how well Prince rehearsed us.”
A little over a year after Prince’s death, this lineup of the Revolution embarked on a tribute tour playing a set list concentrating on those three albums. But what may have started off to some as a head-scratcher (How do you have a show of Prince music…without Prince?) made fans rapturous and proved naysayers wrong. Review after review noted that the shows were mournful, cathartic, and celebratory all at once. So much that the initial tour has been extended, including several year-end dates in Texas.
“We had the realization of what this music means to people. At the time we recorded it, we were so focused on making it and making sure that Prince’s vision has gone through,” Bobby Z offers. He also continued to work with Prince for several years after the Revolution dissolved.
“But now that all this time has gone on and he’s no longer with us. The music that remains is part of people’s lives: weddings, anniversaries, funerals. They were conceived by it! We’re all in this experience of being in the generation that he lived in. Future generations won’t have that. We’re in awe of him and reminded of his greatness. We’re all mortals, but he’s immortal as far as I’m concerned.”
Of all the members of the Revolution, Bobby Z had the longest relationship with Prince as a musician and friend, stretching back to 1979 as part of his pre-Purple Rain tours and albums. “Prince was huge in Texas, and there was a lot of love for him early on. I know we played Houston back then!” he says.
And – while on the phone – Bobby Z. does a quick internet search (“These Prince websites…are incredibly detailed!”) and pinpoints that he and Prince first played here on December 1, 1979 at a club called The Palace. Even today, he’s still in awe of the man’s creative force and appeal.
“He had an ability to make any day surreal with a lot of stuff going on. But I would like to look at [this tour] through his lens, and it’s about the songs. It’s these particular songs with these particular players,” he says. “Purple Rain was the sixth album I was witness to being made, and it was a struggle to get there through sheer talent and hard work. As a witness to it, it was supernatural. Normal people don’t create the way he did. It was fluid and breathtaking, and flawless in some cases.”
As time has passed and the Revolution has more shows under their belts, Bobby Z says he’s also seen the mood of the audience shift. “That’s changed the most. The grief turns to mourning, then sadness, then celebration. And it’s more of a celebration now,” he says. “You learn to leave on, and the only thing we know how to honor him is to play this music. It’s almost necessary to do this while we’re still alive.”
Members of the Revolution take turns handling Prince’s vocals, and their lineup is buoyed by the addition of Stokely Williams, singer for the Minneapolis-based group Mint Condition and a performer Bobby Z says Prince “loved.” He feels that it’s very organic to have Williams up there onstage acting as a conduit, and that he’s not trying to “replace” Prince. Since that’s an impossible task. It’s about playing this music together, with the original players.
“When I saw Paul McCartney, of course it’s not the Beatles. But to have one of the people involved with the music and doing it live, that’s something,” Bobby Z says. “I never thought I’d get to hear ‘Drive My Car’ being done live or ‘Band on the Run.’ And it reminds you that they’re just songs, but they’re powerful songs. Just like when we do ‘Baby, I’m a Star,’ ‘I Would Die 4 U,’ ‘Raspberry Beret,’ or ‘Take Me With U.’”
As for the show’s highlight, Bobby Z says it’s when they tackle “Purple Rain,” which he calls a “living, breathing entity in itself” and definitely the song that makes the band – and audience – the most emotional. And the players onstage feel bonded to both the man who is the reason they are there and the audience.
“There’s a never-ending fountain of love and admiration for Prince. Patience is a part of this story…because we all know that Prince had very little of it! And I think that was our most common trait between us. But now that he’s passed, people are appreciating it more,” he says. “I’ve batted around with the Grim Reaper and played a few rounds of badminton with him myself with some heart issues a few years ago. When Prince passed, we all called each other immediately. It’s a club that we’re in forever.”
Asked about a hidden or little-known talent of Prince that most people might not know, Bobby Z explains that the famous Charlie Murphy/Dave Chappelle skit is not fiction: Prince was a baller.
“He was very athletic. He was great at basketball, baseball, kickball he was very into ping pong, pool, even touch football – though he didn’t like it when you grabbed the ball over him!” Bobby Z says. “He was a fun boss at time and sometimes the whole crew would end up in these hodge-podge competitions. He was demanding, but there was a charisma and kinship with people, even down to the guys who drove the trucks. To be around someone that skilled…he just had an aura.”
After finishing up U.S. dates, the Revolution will head to Europe in 2019 to satisfy the rabid Prince fan base overseas. There are no current plans for more touring or a recording project, but Bobby Z says that when the Revolution plays their last scheduled gig, he and the rest of the band will have achieved their primary goal.
“After we wrap up the tour, we will have definitely accomplished what we tried to do, which is to make him proud,” he sums up. “Even after all these years, we’re still trying to do that.”
The Revolution plays 8 p.m. on December 30 at the House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. For information, call 888-402-5837 or visit HouseofBlues.com/Houston. $30-$70.
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