Live & Loco: Purple Love Reign (The Revolution at TLA in Philly 4/30/17)
Theater of the Living Arts
South Street, Philadelphia PA
Sunday, April 30, 2017
The last week or so of April 2017, was a strange and difficult one for many Prince fans, self-included. We all probably marked the one-year anniversary of the fateful day, April 21st, 20SickDream, in our own way. Personally, I marked it by almost actively avoiding it altogether. The subsequent week, oddly enough, became the first week that I listened to no Prince music since that time it snowed in April a year earlier.
That week, one year ago, was one of the more surreal and shitty that I’ve experienced in my four decades on earth. The week began with me flying back from LA to Philly, to attend a 4/16 funeral on a Saturday in Philadelphia, following the sudden-death of longtime friend Angel Carter. Shortly before taking that flight, there was the word about a Prince private-flight needing to be emergency landed for a mysterious illness. Having lost two personal friends within that month, to say nothing of the artistic atrophy of musical legends already passed that year, beginning with David Bowie but including Phife Dawg a few weeks earlier, losing Prince seemed like an impossibly cruel twist of fate. Luckily, that outcome was diverted. Little did we know, it would only be averted for a single week. Following Angel’s funeral, I decided to stick back east for the rest of the week. After all it was my nephew’s sixth birthday on Thursday, my sister was in town with her family to mark the occasion on Thursday 4/21. I'd fly back to L.A. the following day, Friday, in time to make a eulogy/toast-speech at a Saturday 4/23 Memorial Tribute, in honor of a dearly beloved and suddenly departed friend Kenny LeMay.
Somewhere during the course of my nephew’s bouncy-house Birthday Bash, came word that Prince had died. Almost immediately thereafter, the phone I’d shut off for the festivities was blowing up, after turning it on to seek further confirmation. Before long, I was headed outside around the side of an industrial building, to try and process the news somewhere else than among a gathering of joyously raucous children.
I say all that to say this: I had no idea what to expect from a show by Prince’s most famous former band, The Revolution, arriving in Philly for a pair of TLA shows only one year and one week since that awful news arrived. The tributes in the interim had ranged from misguided (I see u, Madonna) to inspired (shouts out to Bilal). But in retrospect, this show gave me and many other fans in attendance, just what we needed in that moment. I’m probably not too interested in further tribute shows, by other outfits. Most just seem to be a reminder of the still-bizarre truth, that Prince is no longer here.
Despite Prince being born 17 years before me, I never actually believed I’d outlive him. There was something far too supernatural about the Purple One, than to make that feel like a real possibility. But I did not know the man personally, even if his art and public life has impacted me in countless personal ways since childhood. From what I can tell, some close friends and family didn’t seem to know him that well either.
So that brings us to the final day of April in Philadelphia, 2017. Although there was an unseasonable chill to the spring air, following days of steamy summer-like heat, the forecast did not call for snow. No rain would come down either. With my Respond/React podcast co-conspirator Jason Keenan, who I met around the same year I first caught Prince on MTV, as a young kid in ’82/83, we headed over to South Street, to see what a reunited show by The Revolution could be. Outside of earlier dates on this mini-tour, and the memorial shows at First Avenue, this was a band that hadn’t really played full sets together since their bandleader Prince, disbanded the group in 1987.
Where would that leave guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardists Lisa Coleman and Matt “Doctor” Fink, bassist Brown Mark and drummer Bobby Z, thirty years later, after the unthinkable passing of Prince has somehow occurred? That was anybody’s guess. I purposefully avoided seeing any set-lists or reading any reviews of earlier shows, in anticipation of wanting to experience it for myself on Sunday night.
The crowd, an eclectic mix of all ages, sexes and races was gathered out front in a line down the block as we arrived. Which made it more surprising when we got in there, seeing how much room there was to move on the downstairs floor area inside. Having been in this room less than a month earlier, for potentially the last great DMX show for the foreseeable future (hope he’s getting the help he needs), the difference was night and day. Granted, The Revolution had already played a sold-out Saturday show the night before, while Jason and I had actually arrived at this show on time, since we knew that unlike was the case with The Dog, this one could be counted on to start close to on time.
The vibe was warm and inviting from the start. The kind of show that you can tell even the TLA employees were happier than usual to be working. We met a woman from Minneapolis who had first started following Prince during her college days at the University of Minnesota shortly after the release of Purple Rain. Saw a dude waiting in the front row with a Prince Batdance hat he looked like he'd been keeping in a vault and waiting for the perfect place to break it out. There was a millennial age girl next to me, whose Snapchat would later go on to catch our duet on “Erotic City” among others. But it’s difficult to fully explain the feeling a longtime Prince fan gets standing a few feet from that OG Revolution drum-kit, in a space smaller than the First Avenue club that the band ripped back in the early-to-mid-80’s. That, along with a guitar tech wandering about onstage, was enough to have the growing crowd bubbling in anticipation.
As it turned out, that anticipation was justified and rewarded. The show started as you’d would want and expect, with the sampled sound of the First Avenue house announcer in Purple Rain declaring: “Ladies and Gentlemen…. Please Welcome, The Revolution!”.
Immediately after that, the initial bizarre sounds that begin “Computer Blue”, then:
“Wendy, is the water warm enough?”
“Shall We Begin?”
BAM! The rest of the band jumped in and let the funky good time begin.
It was on like Donkey Kong from that point on, as the band paraded (see what I did there?) through a plethora of fan favorites, deep album cuts and a staggering number of hits given how brief a period of time that the band actually existed.
“America” took on further relevance in 2017. “Mountains” became a sing along in a way that it couldn’t fully be in the context of watching Prince perform it at the LA Forum on Welcome 2 America Tour six Aprils earlier. The Revolution snuck in a couple deep unreleased cuts even I didn’t recognize, with “Our Destiny” and “Roadhouse Garden”. If I’m quibbling I could say that I’d have preferred to get a “Pop Life” or “She’s Always In My Hair”. While “Head” would have given us a chance to see and hear Doctor Fink kill his synth part, which along with Dez’s guitar solo on “Little Red Corvette”, represent arguably the most iconic non-Prince solo instrumental turns on a Prince record. But who’s counting or complaining? Certainly, not me. All in all, without the man himself around to head up the proceedings, it was everything we thought it could be.
And in a lot of ways, much more emotional and personal than it would have been. This based not only on the size of the venue, as the TLA has a capacity of around 1000 spread across two floors, but also due to the shared pain both his former bandmates and the crowd felt in Prince’s absence. It was up to all of us present to try to negotiate that gap.
Wendy Melvoin, just 17 when Prince plucked her to replace Dez Dickerson on guitar following his departure after the 1999 Tour at the end of 1983, is by default the de facto bandleader in 2017. It’s a role that, despite her feeling clearly uncomfortable with in this context, she performed admirably, in particular on songs on which her rhythm guitar is the key instrument, like “Kiss”.
Flanked across the stage riser, it was no surprise to see Dr. Fink showing out on a few synth solos in his costume scrubs. It was no shock to see Lisa Coleman, provide her brand of sweetly understated perfection on piano and backup vocals. Nor for Bobby Z to be a human metronome behind the drum kit, while both being and looking to The Revolution like Max Weinberg would in the E Street Band.
But who knew Brown Mark would be such a showman, up front alongside Wendy on bass, eerily mimicking Prince vocals on a few funk jams, steadily encouraging crowd participation, plus providing his own hyper-kinetic energy? The Revolution delegated some of the heavier lifting, singing, and dancing duties to Stokley Williams, of the criminally underrated funk-soul Minneapolis band Mint Condition, to greatly appreciated affect. But Wendy and Brown Mark made it abundantly clear from the outset, that since “he’s not here”, we the audience were going to be the lead singer of the band this evening. It was a duty this crowd took seriously, acquitting themselves quite capably throughout the night.
Much like the show began as we would have wanted and expected, with the house-announcer sample and Wendy/Lisa dialogue, so too did the evening end in the order you’d have desired and imagined. That being, of course, an emotional “Purple Rain” set closer in which I turned to Jason and said “I’m not sure I'm ready for this yet” upon hearing the first chord, but quickly snapped out of it well before Wendy launched towards the big solo. By the end, I was half-expecting to look behind me in the club to see Billy Sparks crying and Appollonia beaming.
Then, just as The Revolution had done in the 1984 film of the same name, they came out for the double-feature encore of “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby, I’m A Star”, with the floor shaking underneath our collective feet and the “HEY!” part from the crowd being loud enough to overwhelm the sounds coming from the stage.
By the time the 24-song, two-plus-hour show had concluded, both the band and the crowd parted ways sweaty, impressed, proud and sufficiently satisfied. One year plus nine days since our beloved bandleader had died, we could take comfort in the realization that his music will last forever, which is a mighty long time.