With his giant headphones on, an inflated purple guitar in his hands, 2-year-old Koen was all set to witness his mom in concert for the first time.
Resting in Dad’s arms, Koen, his eyes growing wide, watched Donna Grantis blast shards of guitar sounds at Paisley Park the other day.
This wasn’t quite like the videos of Mom in concert that Koen had seen over and over. This was live and large and LOUD.
And he had a review afterward as Grantis embraced him.
“Mo’ tabla,” he suggested, referring to one of the instruments in Grantis’ band.
Koen and other music lovers can hear more tabla when Grantis celebrates the release of her new album, “Diamonds & Dynamite,” Thursday at the Dakota. The Dakota is more intimate than the spacious Paisley soundstage, all the better to appreciate the subtleties of the tabla.
The Dakota is where Grantis’ quintet made its debut in August 2017 and where she made her Twin Cities debut in January 2013 in Prince’s 3rdEyeGirl.
Grantis’ own combo delivers new millennium instrumental jazz-rock fusion, sort of like Jeff Beck meets a postmodern Mahavishnu Orchestra. The ensemble travels down eight different lanes of the fusion superhighway in Hendrixian crosstown traffic, all with an exotic East Indian undertone thanks to tabla player Suphala.
“The tablas lend themselves well to both an ambient, meditative and physical vibe as well as the really groovy stuff like where things can get dissonant and chaotic,” Grantis observed.
Moreover, when people see these curious hand drums onstage, “they know they’re about to experience something very different.”
After composing several pieces, Grantis taught her Twin Cities-based band — drummer J.T. Bates, bassist Cody McKinney and keyboardist Bryan Nichols plus Brooklyn-based Suphala — in the same manner Prince presented new material to 3rdEyeGirl. No musical charts but certain lines or chord progressions and then they’d jam.
“The songs were composed but not arranged,” Grantis explained. “I left room for flexibility.”
The group recorded the music live in two batches at the Terrarium in Minneapolis — one right before their debut gig and the other seven months later. Then Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready added guitar to two tracks.
Grantis met McCready at a 3rdEyeGirl gig in Seattle in 2013. When Pearl Jam had a concert in Toronto three years later, McCready invited the Toronto native to join them, a mere three weeks after Prince died.
“I flew home thinking a good dose of rock ’n’ roll would be good medicine,” said Grantis, who sat in with Pearl Jam on a version of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” “That was extremely fun, and we talked about collaborating.”
Discovered on YouTube
While living in Toronto, Grantis was discovered by Prince on YouTube. She relocated to the Twin Cities in 2012 to form 3rdEyeGirl with bassist Ida Nielsen and drummer Hannah Welton. They toured and recorded with Prince until late 2015 when he decided to do his solo Piano and a Microphone Tour.
Grantis learned so much from Prince, whether technical things like guitar tones and effects pedals to bigger-picture aspects like having a creative vision covering everything from fashion to the music played before you hit the stage. And, of course, he taught her all about funk.
Some of his Purple funk can be heard here and there on Grantis’ new album, but her influences are many, ranging from jazz giants Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter to soul queen Aretha Franklin to various guitar gods including Eric Clapton, B.B. King and John Scofield.
“In college, I immersed myself in traditional jazz,” she said. “That’s why it was so eye-opening to me when Prince turned me on to Miles Davis’ electric period; it opened up a whole new world for me. I love the improvisational aspect of jazz. It’s total freedom.”
Raised on the rock of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, Grantis got her first guitar at age 13 and later earned a music degree in jazz performance from McGill University in Montreal before playing in various jazz and rock groups in Toronto.
Grantis returned to her hometown this month to promote her new album, with interviews on radio and TV. But she didn’t play any gigs.
With her musicians, she plans to tour later this year with the help of her record label, eOne, a Canadian indie imprint that’s home to Amos Lee, Metric, Snoop Dogg, Ace Frehley, Chromeo and many others.
Grantis stays in touch with the other two members of 3rdEyeGirl. Nielsen, who lives in Denmark, is touring Europe with her own band. Welton, a mother of two in Chicago, is running an online church.
“We may reconnect one day,” Grantis said of 3rdEyeGirl. “We’re definitely lifelong friends. There’s such a deep musical connection, especially after we spent so much time together.”
Grantis and her husband, Trevor Guy, who is Paisley Park’s creative director, have settled in the Twin Cities, hoping to get green cards. Two months ago, they moved into their third different house, migrating from Uptown to Maple Grove, trading hip restaurants for awesome jungle gyms.
“This is now where we’ve planted roots,” she said. “It’s such an amazing place to raise a family.”
A return to Chanhassen a few weeks ago to play at Paisley Park soundstage for the first time since Prince died in 2016 was, for Grantis, emotional and reassuring — and the right thing for the room where it happened.
“Music was the heartbeat of that building,” she said a few days later over lunch at Walker Art Center. “I try to think about all the things I learned at that time. It makes me get teary-eyed. I think about what would make him proud.
“I feel by all of us [in 3rdEyeGirl] pursuing our own things is our way of honoring our experience with Prince. He encouraged us. Occasionally he’d ask: ‘When you lead your own band, will it be rock or funk?’ He was always looking ahead, always creating. We’re on the right path.”
Grantis’ life these days is all about making adjustments. With another child due in May, she has to reposition her guitar away from her baby bump during gigs this spring.
“The only thing that’s different is that my guitar rests on my side rather than in front,” she pointed out. “How many overweight men play guitar? If they can do it, I can do it. This doesn’t affect the way I play at all. There’s no ergonomic difference.”
Whether she’s playing guitar or drinking water, the baby reacts.
“This baby is very strong in general and has been moving a lot. In rehearsal and in concert, the baby is hearing everything. I think that’s miraculous.”
Koen was in the womb when half of “Diamonds & Dynamite” was recorded. Maybe that and watching Mama work have already inspired him to work on his own guitar skills.
“He’s got a couple of toy guitars given to him as gifts. I also let him go for the real thing,” Mom said. “We have a couple acoustics [guitars] we lay on the ground, and he strums or plucks certain strings. And he drives his trucks along the neck of the guitar. Whatever he does is cool.”
Perhaps some tabla.