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Let's go crazy: The Revolution, Prince's original band, to close out Riverside summer series

Let's go crazy: The Revolution, Prince's original band, to close out Riverside summer series

Maybe you’ve seen the stickers around town. Maybe you’ve seen the Facebook videos. Maybe you’ve been to a local restaurant and seen something new on the menu. Whatever you’ve been doing in Rochester this summer, the Summer of Purple has been inescapable. 

This weekend, it all comes to a head. 

The 28th installment of the Down by the Riverside free outdoor concert series comes to a close Sunday night with the most anticipated show of the summer. The Revolution, Prince’s backing band from 1979-1986, are set to play, with Rochester’s DJ Supafly on the bill as the opener.

While Prince played with dozens of backing musicians in his career, The Revolution were by far the most notable group to associate with him — they spent nearly six months atop the Billboard album charts and garnered two No. 1 singles off the strength of 1984’s Purple Rain.

After Prince’s death in 2016, the group reunited for the first time since 2012 and embarked on a world tour to pay tribute.

Chris Alcott, a manager for Riverside Concerts and one of the main people instrumental in bringing The Revolution to Rochester, said the summer’s purple tinge was a community effort.

“As with anything in Rochester, it takes the whole community getting together to make something nice happen, and that’s exactly what’s happened with this,” said Alcott. “We didn’t know what the community response was going to be like, but it’s been fantastic… we’ve seen some really creative ideas.”

With Sunday’s show fast approaching, we were able to talk with Bobby Z., a Minnesota native and the original drummer for The Revolution, about meeting with Prince, recording Purple Rain, and how the current quintet plans to honor their friend and fellow maestro in the coming years.

Med City Beat: You’ve spent the last couple years playing shows all over the world, and it had been decades since the original Revolution lineup had been on tour together. What’s it been like to be back on stage with such familiar faces?

Bobby Z.: You know, it’s one of the most comforting things you can do in life, is have band mates like this. Life is so uncertain and times are so crazy, and it’s very fortunate that we have each other. I think we appreciate that more and more after every show. You can’t have better friends than this. We made it to the mountaintop together, and it’s a very exclusive club we live in. I’m so grateful to have them.

MCB: Do you think more shows and tours are in the pipeline for the coming years?

BZ: It’s been a long journey for all of us, but God-willing, if our health stays good, I think we’ll continue to carry the torch as best we can. The music means so much to people… we feel like we should keep going. 2020, 2021, 2022… we’ll be playing.

MCB: I want to hear a little about your start in music… how did you get to learn the drums, and how did you turn that into a gig as the drummer for The Revolution?

BZ: I blame it all on my brother, David, who was a first-generation hippie pioneer. Even before the Beatles, he was messing around. He was in a folk duo, and that changed the household — my dad was a World War II Navy vet, so all that stereotypical early 60s stuff — and I benefited from all the bands that would play in my basement. I was playing drums before I could reach the pedals. There was this great drummer, John Hughes, who inspired me so much, and of course, Ringo and The Beatles just threw fuel on the fire. I started lessons, played in kid bands, and eventually, I made the decision to be a musician after high school, which back then was pretty daring. I got a break with Kevin Odegard [worked with Bob Dylan on his record “Blood on the Tracks”] at 19, and certain configurations of that band led to Prince. On my other side, I was a driver for Owen Husney’s ad agency, who was a family friend. [Husney is the man credited with discovering Prince.] It was kind of two parts of my life that collided. Prince came into everywhere I was 00 the only way I can believe that is destiny. We became friends, and then I auditioned against everyone in Minneapolis twice to get that job... it took eighteen months, but there wasn’t a deal or anything. Jamming was his method of communication.

MCB: On a national and international stage, both Prince and The Revolution are most notably known for Purple Rain. I know Prince brought a lot of songs to the table that were already finished, but the song “Purple Rain” was much more collaborative. can you tell me what the writing process was like in that room?

BZ: I remember it was the end of the day, we were working on “Computer Blue” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” and we had a 24-track recording machine in the middle of the room — engineers today might barf if they saw the unorthodox things we were doing. He had that riff for a while, and he finally brought it to the band. It felt like a movie, ironically, because it just had that groove from the get-go. Matt, Dr. Fink, played that “doo-doo-do-do” bit on the keyboard, and it was just all there. I had no idea it would translate 36 years later, but that song is alive. It was captured live at First Avenue, and it felt like lightning in a bottle. When we play it now, it still has that feeling, and it makes people so nostalgic. I think his passing adds a whole new layer to it too — it’s all very deep.

MCB: Do you think that new nostalgic layer has added itself to other songs since the band reunited? What have these shows meant to you?

BZ: At first, we were just trying to figure out what we were doing. There were so many questions — like, who’s going to sing? Wendy [Melvoin, rhythm guitarist/vocalist] says on stage, ‘These songs belong to you.’ These songs belong to the audience. Now it feels like we’re connecting on a different level with the audience. I’ve always said, Mozart had a band, and when he died, the only option was to keep playing what the maestro wrote. We just feel like we’re carrying on something that’s really important. We take it very seriously — but it’s kind of funny… you make a mistake, and you look up. He would kill you for that… it’s just in our DNA.

MCB: So what was it like to play and write with Prince, someone who was so talented?

BZ: To have one of your ideas accepted by such a gifted songwriter… if your ideas were accepted, you felt like you had really accomplished something. Working side-by-side, or interpreting what he wanted you to do, there was an air of importance to it all. I started way back with him, but by Purple Rain, he had really etched himself in stone. It was all so important.

MCB: Prince is known as such a larger-than-life figure. what was one of the first moments you had when it really sunk in that you were working with one of the best songwriters on the planet? 

BZ: I think it was his second album [self-titled], actually. The first album [For You], you know, I had the demo tape for so long, and I was playing it for everyone, and I just wore it out. Then they remade the demos into the album, and, you know, it was such a long, grinding period of time for him. The second album, when I heard “[It’s] Gonna Be Lonely,” “Sexy Dancer,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?,” wow. Those songs really spoke to me. It told me, ‘man, this guy’s really figuring it out.’”

MCB: Yeah, I’ve never been in the room with anyone as talented as Prince, obviously, but when you’re working with someone who’s just on another level, it’s special.

BZ: It’s just shocking when creative ideas come on that level. You just can’t understand it on some level… it just had that magic. Music is a language, and he spoke it so well. His ability to communicate still lives in my heart. When I play, I’m still thinking ‘wow, he’d love that lick.’ You’re still playing for someone that... for him, music was as important as food. The intensity of what music meant to him, and how it transferred through his life, it was uncanny.

MCB: And you can see that in his live recordings, I think. The one that sticks out to me personally was his Super Bowl halftime performance — it was just different. I was nine, and it still stuck out to me. It was incredible.

BZ: It was… but, you know, that Super Bowl performance, people talk about that, but it was, like, a Tuesday to him. People are freaking out, but, it’s Prince, you know?

MCB: This summer has been called the ‘Summer of Purple’ here in Rochester — there’s stickers all over, restaurants are making purple drinks, buildings in town are lit purple, all for one show. To see that excitement still present after all these years, what does that mean to you?

BZ: We’ve definitely seen excitement like that in Minnesota recently. We just played a show in Detroit Lakes, and we did this tour with the Minnesota History Center that took us to St. Cloud and Red Wing, and we’re really excited that we have the opportunity to bring the show to Rochester. From what you’re saying, it sounds like people really appreciate that we’re coming, and that’s just incredible. I grew up in St. Louis Park, and here we are — the whole state’s feeling the love for Prince and identifies with him, and that’s just amazing.

MCB: It really does feel like Prince and The Revolution are this bonding force for Minnesota at this point.

BZ: Yeah, it was really great to come home in the early days to play a hometown show. It had a special feeling. Now, to be able to spread that love all over the state, it’s really incredible.

You can catch Bobby Z. and The Revolution performing songs that helped define a generation — this Sunday beginning at 7 p.m. at Mayo Park in Rochester.

Story written by reporter and musician Isaac Jahns.

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