It's just after 9:00 on a Thursday night in downtown Minneapolis, and the sidewalks in front of First Avenue are crammed with people. The Revolution are about to play their first show since the death of Prince, their friend and former leader, in April. Appearing tonight is the lineup that made Purple Rain – rhythm guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardists Lisa Coleman and Matt "Dr." Fink, bassist Brownmark and drummer Bobby Z – plus two core members of the band from a previous incarnation: rhythm guitarist Dez Dickerson and bass guitarist André Cymone, a childhood friend who lived with Prince when they were kids.
First Avenue is hallowed ground in Princeworld. This is where Purple Rain was shot, and where much of the soundtrack was recorded. Tonight is an important part of the grieving process for both the band and fans. That's why multiple friends say that the Revolution are an "emotional wreck."
Before the show, there was a week of rehearsals in Los Angeles – essential for a band that's played only a handful of gigs since breaking up in 1986. Stories about Prince flowed easily; coming together musically was harder. "It was really intense," Coleman says of the rehearsals. "Difficult. The music was mercurial. Like, we couldn't quite grab it. I mean, we were trained to look at Prince for cues, and even if he's wrong, he's right. We were looking into a space and then looking at each other going, 'What is this?'"
Minutes before the show, back in the tiny dressing room, a low-key family reunion is taking place. Apollonia – Prince's love interest in Purple Rain – floats in, wearing a tight gold dress. These days, she runs an entertainment company. Both of Prince's ex-wives, Mayte Garcia and Manuela Testolini, are here. So is Susannah Melvoin, Wendy's twin sister and Prince's ex-fiancee, and co-lead singer of the Family. There's also Jerome Benton from the Time, Purple Rain engineer Susan Rogers and Omarr Baker, Prince's younger half-brother. Band members' children flow in and out of the room.
Wendy says the members of the Revolution have been taking care of each other since Prince died: "We need each other to get through this." She says they talk every day. "I'm still in shock," Bobby Z says. "I still can't believe he's gone." Around 9:30, I ask Coleman if she's ready. She says, "Yeah . . .," without much conviction. Then she says "no" and shakes her head.
Just before 10 p.m., the purple lights go up and the band launches into "Let's Go Crazy," with Wendy singing lead. There's something tentative about everyone's performance. Maybe it's because, as Wendy adds later, "There were people [in the audience] in complete catatonic tears." Or maybe, as many said, they could feel Prince's presence. "I know it sounds metaphysical or something," Apollonia says later, "but we feel him. He is with us."
By the third song, "America," things begin to coalesce. Wendy is dancing. The band rocks through "Mountains," "Uptown" and "Little Red Corvette," the leads shared by Wendy, Dickerson, Brownmark and Cymone. Then Bilal, the R&B singer, walks onstage and does justice to the powerhouse "The Beautiful Ones."
Around 11, the guys depart, leaving Wendy and Coleman alone onstage. The pair, who once appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with Prince, went on to release three albums as a duo after the Revolution broke up. Tonight, they ease into "Sometimes It Snows in April." "I often dream of heaven, and I know," Wendy sings, changing a key line, "that Prince is there." Everyone in the building is in tears. To get through it, Coleman later recalls, "I had to put myself into a trance and not think about what it's about too much." At the song's end, she points to the sky, looks up and mouths, "I love you."
The following night, they do it all over again, but this time the nerves are gone. The band explodes out of the gate, and from the first chorus of "Let's Go Crazy," everyone's dancing. Melvoin tells Prince stories from the stage. "He always told us," she says, " 'if you make a mistake, make it twice!' " Now, they know they can take this show on the road – and there's talk that they will. But once again, after "Purple Rain," the dressing-room door closes and there are lots of tears. "It's a very strange feeling," Bobby Z says, summing up the reunion. "You're excited and sad at the same time."