In the 372 days since he left this plane, Prince has been all around us. His estate’s precarious future has kept the Internet spinning, his ex-wife has published a devastatingly intimate memoir, and his songs have floated onto our streaming platforms like funky purple perfume. This is how communal grief works in the information age. An abrupt absence becomes an amplified presence.
Last week, that mysterious omnipresence hit the road when Prince’s most-beloved backing troupe, the Revolution, launched a memorial tour at the late pop star’s Paisley Park studios on the one-year anniversary of his death. And on Thursday night, the Revolution checked into the Fillmore Silver Spring, eager to polish the sparkliest gems in Prince’s early songbook — a shimmering cascade of hits from 1980 to 1986 that stands as the most brilliant run in pop music since the Beatles ruled the world. “Remember,” guitarist Wendy Melvoin said to the audience near the top of the show, “this music belongs to you.”
That was an exceedingly generous idea to put into the air, but Melvoin and her bandmates quickly proved that these songs truly belong in their hands now. Across 20-plus songs, the Revolution behaved more like a five-person rhythm section: keyboardists Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink casually jabbing their machines, incidentally making melody while keeping time; Melvoin swiping at her guitar strings with maestro precision; Mark Brown’s fingertips jumping up and down his bass like radioactive popcorn; and drummer Bobby Rivkin keeping the party airlocked, as if trying to obsolesce those drum machines that Prince loved so much.
The tone felt genuine, and the vibe was just right. Ultimately, these were faithful renditions of Prince’s greatest compositions, lovingly delivered by the very hands that helped make us all believers in the first place. He’s lucky to have these five acting as his custodians, and so are we.
Melvoin and Brown handled most of the vocals, with intermittent contributions from Mint Condition’s Stokley Williams, a shrewd vocalist who often seemed to be singing along with the crowd instead of the other way around. He delivered his first knockout punch during the oldest cut in the set — “Uptown,” a springy ode to utopia from 1980’s “Dirty Mind,” Prince’s leanest, meanest album. From that point forward, Williams was on hand for the most ecstatic moments in the program — the nasty boing-boing of “DMSR,” the spring-loaded teasings of “Kiss,” the X-rated finesse of “Erotic City,” the abiding euphoria of “1999.”
Yet as melodically rich as these tunes were, the Revolution kept pushing the rhythm to the foreground — and in doing so, the band seemed to be drawing a line. Melody is that thing we hum in the shower. It’s the stuff that sticks in our heads. Rhythm is something else. It’s something you feel with your entire body, it’s the memory that you stash in your bones. So when a beloved Prince beat comes thumping at your person on a dance floor crowded with bouncing bodies and heightened emotions, your memories can feel like they’re coursing through the entirety of your physical being.
Maybe that’s just a convoluted way of explaining how easy it was to get weepy while shaking your tail feathers to “Let’s Work.” Still, Thursday night’s show offered only one implicitly mournful moment: “Sometimes It Snows in April,” a quiet duet between Melvoin and Coleman. “Sing along if you see me starting to choke,” Melvoin said, introducing the ballad that she, Coleman and Prince co-wrote 31 years to the day before the singer’s death. “It’s a little hard.” Dutifully, the audience sang along, but with a reverent softness. Between the lines, you could hear the venue’s air conditioning giving a perpetual sigh.
But if you looked around the room, you saw Prince’s utopian vision swaying side to side in three dimensions. This crowd was black and white, young and old — a gathering of norms and freaks clad in leather jackets, lace blouses, workaday chinos, wispy sundresses and Minnesota Vikings jerseys with Prince’s iconic glyph emblazoned where the numbers usually go. Even without Prince, this was very much a Prince concert. His music isn’t done bringing people together. Not yet.