Prince's Backing Band Keeps the Minneapolis Sound Alive

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After Prince passed away in April of 2016, the Revolution came back together for three special sold-out shows at First Avenue in Minneapolis.

Then, after regrouping again earlier this year to perform at Paisley Park on the first anniversary of Prince’s death, the group, which features guitarist Wendy Melvoin, bassist Brownmark, keyboardists Matt Fink and Lisa Coleman, and drummer Bobby Z, decided to take the show back on the road.  

“You go through the motions and can’t believe what you’re doing,” says Bobby Z in a recent phone interview from his Minneapolis home when asked about what it's been like to perform in the wake of Prince's death. The group comes to House of Blues on May 18. “It’s like trudging through mud. You think, ‘How can this possibly be?’ With our comrades and the fans cheering us on, we figured we were all in the same boat. We were all lost.”

But after the Paisley Park shows, the band knew it had to continue to perform.

“That was a pretty heavy responsibility,” says Bobby Z. “Every time we go through the effort to put these shows together, it’s one and done. We decided that this time we want to take the train out of Minneapolis. There are other people around the country feeling the same way. We need to spread Prince’s love and our love for him. This is the only way we know how to do it. It’s ambitious.”

Originally, the drummer in his brother’s high school band inspired Bobby Z to take up the instrument.

“He had an amazing drummer in his high school band, which was pretty rare at that time,” he says. “He wasn’t like Ringo or Keith Moon or anything. This guy had military style training. I was fascinated by the drum coordinating techniques. It’s like learning math at the same time. I took to it right away. I became fascinated with not only the drum sounds but the drum playing and started when I was only six years old.”

He describes his first meeting with Prince at a Minneapolis studio as “comical.”

“We hung around [recording engineer] Chris Moon’s studio,” he says. “That was the beginning of the whole enchilada, if you will. I was walking down the hall. On this day, I heard the most glorious sound. It turned out to be the song ‘Baby.’ I looked in and saw the Afro. I got just side eyes, like we all know now. Not the turn of the head. I’m me, so I walked in and said, ‘What’s going on?’ Chris Moon walked in and said, ‘No. This is Prince.’ I was like, ‘What?’ Already he had created an aura around him. You couldn’t penetrate it. I got a couple of laughs out of him. That was the beginning of a 43-year-old friendship. I loved to make him laugh. It was the best feeling in the world.”

Prince was playing with Morris Day but would branch off to start his own project with bassist André Cymone.

“André and Prince were so ahead of us in some many ways,” says Bobby Z. “They live and breathe this stuff. We were just trying to play six nights a week and make some money. We were musicians. Prince and André would figure out poses. They took it so seriously. I thought he would make it just because he was so driven. At that point, you didn’t doubt his songwriting ability. When I heard ‘When Doves Cry’ in the studio it was so powerful. It felt life-changing at the time.”

The Revolution would form in 1979. The band played on the Prince albums Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day and Parade; some members also played on 1999. Together, they turned out multiple No. 1 hits, and “Purple Rain” even won a Grammy for Best Original Song Score in 1985.

“I was committed to Prince one hundred percent and so was Matt [Fink],” says Bobby Z. “Other people were just in for a time. That wasn’t for me.  You can’t go as far as you want to go like that. I was happy when Lisa [Coleman] came and then Wendy [Melvoin], which rounded out his Fleetwood Mac-like vision of the band.”

As Prince began incorporating more electronic drums and synths, Bobby Z’s role in the band changed.

“I was kind of the first guy who had to take care of the robots,” he admits. “Eventually, me and a guy came up with the first interface to play electronic drums from a machine. It wasn’t even invented yet. I found it fascinating and incorporated it into drumming in a pioneering way. It certainly was a non-traditional role but it came with the job. Now, they can’t sell enough of the machines.”

For Bobby Z, who suffered a heart attack in 2010, performing again with the Revolution has been a real blessing and provided fans with a great opportunity to hear "authentic" renditions of Prince's music one more time.

“I think it’s really interesting when you play these old Prince songs,” he says. “Everyone has heard ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ a million times. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not here. There’s a hole in the stage the size of Texas. When you hear the music by his backup musicians, for lack of a better word, in its authentic form, it’s different than what you thought. It’s a song you never thought you’d hear live again. It’s fun to bring that on people and great to watch the smiles come out. It’s amazing. It’s beautiful.

The Revolution, 7 p.m. Thursday, May 18, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $40-$85, houseofblues.com.

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