Dig if you will the irony of this Purple picture.
First Avenue. The lead singer is the tallest guy on the stage. He and the rest of the New Power Generation (NPG) are dressed like they’ve stepped out of five different bar bands. And they started performing right on time.
Prince might have appreciated their selection of more than 30 songs from his catalog, the funkiness of the band, the cameo performances of dancer Mayte Garcia (his first wife), spotlight-stealing guest guitarist Cobi and the overall entertainment value of the Thursday night’s generous, 2 hour-and-40 minute NPG show at First Avenue. But the band lacked focus, leadership and a wardrobe worthy of Paisley Park.
NPG — Prince’s post-Revolution band — had various members over the years. The players involved on Thursday were a mix-and-match of different eras plus two key newcomers with no Purple connection — lead singer MacKenzie and British drummer Chris Bailey, who is so new he was wearing his laminated tour pass around his neck.
This resurrected NPG collective has played at the Dakota Jazz Club and the Nicollet Mall for Super Bowl Live. But this was their — and MacKenzie’s and Bailey’s — first time at First Ave. Moreover, this concert was a pay-per-view streaming event, with several camera operators stationed onstage and throughout the club.
It took MacKenzie, 30, a long time before he turned on the charm, eventually cutting loose physically (he’s a limber, athletic dancer with an animated face) and vocally (he can sing soulfully, with a nice falsetto and piercing scream).
In fact, the show seemed to turn around when the jam-packed house least expected it.
Out came the unknown Cobi, a one-named singer/guitarist originally from Grand Marais, Minn., who played on “The Tonight Show” last year. Looking like a young Jimmy Page stepping out of the Yardbirds, he tore into the guitar intro to “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and the crowd went wild. His vocals weren’t memorable but his guitar work was. Nineteen songs into the set and suddenly this nobody-knows-who-he-is gets the most boisterous reaction of the night. Cobi knows how to seize the moment.
That seemed to inspire the guitar-less MacKenzie, who finally showed his full potential on the emphatic gospel rocker “The Cross,” the fierce “1999,” the revival-like “Sacrifice of Victor,” the funked up “Peach” and the closing “Alphabet Street,” which mixed elements of church, funk, rock and fancy dancing.
Unlike when the Revolution played at First Avenue five months after Prince’s death in 2016, this show wasn’t emotional. Fans don’t necessarily identify strongly with these particular musicians. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut leader. Three different members did the between-song talking — frontman MacKenzie, music director/keyboardist Morris Hayes and rapper Tony Mosley, who apparently was the instigator for this NPG ensemble getting together to travel the world saluting Prince.
Except for a handful of hits including “Purple Rain” and “Kiss,” NPG played post-Revolution material. Many tunes, especially those featuring Mosley such as “Jughead” and “2Gether,” were lesser known.
Besides the deep tracks, there were missteps. Duetting with his singer-wife Apollo Jane, MacKenzie turned “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Diamonds and Pearls” into Vegas schmaltz. At times, the sound of this oversized band — with as many as four guitarists on some tunes — seemed too thick to generate the good grooves and nasty funk of His Royal Badness.
Prince might have appreciated moments on Thursday but, with his high standards, he likely would have sent the NPG back to the rehearsal room right afterward — with an appointment in the wardrobe department in the morning.