Backstage: Bobby Z & Princess (Maya Rudolph, Gretchen Lieberum)
She wore a trenchcoat and sported a curled lip. He wore a tie-and-a-suit and carried a pair of drum sticks. Together, they partied like it was 1984 at First Avenue.
Perhaps think of it as a collision of “Saturday Night Live” and “Purple Rain” as “SNL” alum Maya Rudolph and her Prince tribute band, Princess, headlined the second annual Benefit to Celebrate Life Saturday night at First Avenue, organized by Prince & the Revolution drummer Bobby Z.
After suffering a near-fatal heart attack two years ago, Z has staged benefits to raise funds and awareness for the American Heart Association. Last year, he reunited the “Purple Rain”-era Revolution minus Prince. This year, he reached back to pre-“Purple Rain” sidemen Andre Cymone and Dez Dickerson. But they were dessert after the main course of Princess.
Don’t overlook the appetizers, however. Because never has a rock ‘n’ roll benefit table been set up more spectacularly in the Twin Cities.
Minneapolis soul crooner Alexander O’Neal kicked off the evening, fittingly, with “A Broken Heart Can Mend.” He may have been singing about a heartbreak from romance but the words took on a new meaning on this occasion.
Then came the Twin Cities own finalist on NBC’s “The Voice” Nicholas David, who went all talent-show at First Avenue by doing a solo piano/vocal interpretation of “Over the Rainbow.” A band joined him for Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and O’Neal returned to the stage mid-song for a soulful vocal exchange with David, which provided the night’s first goose bumps.
Concertgoers can go months or years between goose-bump moments but on Saturday at First Ave, they came back to back, as Patty Peterson, herself having a near-death heart experience because of aortic dissection, lit into “The Greatest Love of All.” And, she sang her heart out.
The final serving of the all-local hors de oeuvres was Stokley Williams, backed by a mini-edition of his Twin Cities band Mint Condition. They got things back into a soul groove with a trio of numbers, seasoned with the soaring rock guitar work of Homer Odell.
Then it was time for the imported entree – Princess, fronted by Rudolph and her friend since college Gretchen Lieberum. In the past year, they’ve done about 10 gigs, including a cameo Thursday at Carnegie Hall as part of an all-star tribute to Prince. But, Princess’ dream gig at First Avenue -- where “Purple Rain” was filmed – was a full 45-minute set.
Clearly fans of Prince and “Purple Rain,” Rudolph and Lieberum played it pretty straight. To be sure, they danced playfully in unison andrecited dialogue from the movie (the scene about purifying yourself in Lake Minnetonka) with a mixture of homage and humor. But they sang it like they meant it – from “Controversy” and “Head” to “Lady Cab Driver” and “The Beautiful Ones” to “Darling Nikki” and the encore of “Purple Rain,” another goose-bump inducer thanks in part to Cory Wong’s guitar.
As with many sumptuous meals, the dessert was too much in both size and richness. It was reunion time for Bobby Z, Dr. Fink, Cymone and Dickerson, all members of Prince’s first band after the release of his debut album in 1978. Z called them the Rebels on Saturday. They rocked out on classic oldies (Hendrix, Grand Funk) and early Prince pieces (“When U Were Mine,” “Why U Wanna Treat Me So Bad,” “Dance Electric”) with Cymone and Dickerson demonstrating fine falsettos and Questlove from the Roots and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" helping out on drums (he accompanied Princess, too).
Then, just like the end of a “Saturday Night Live” show, the entire cast assembled onstage. But instead of hugging each other while the credits rolled, everyone joined in a celebrative rendition of Prince’s “Party Up.”
Where was Prince? Who knows? But he did sit outside of First Avenue in a limo Friday night while Questlove was inside doing a DJ set.