As they settled into their corner positions in a northeast Minneapolis rehearsal studio on Monday afternoon, the cornerstone members of Prince’s New Power Generation talked about their six-year run in the band like it was a boot camp.
“It was repetitive, nonstop intensity,” said Sonny Thompson, warming up his fingers on his Warwick bass.
“At the drop of a hat, we had to be able to play any song he’d throw at us. We would do recording sessions all day, and then he’d call us up and say, ‘Let’s play tonight.’ ”
Looking out from behind the cymbals of his drum kit, Michael Bland added, “It was grueling, but it was glorious, too.
“It bonded us. So of course we would come together again at a time like this.”
A month and a half out, Prince fans worldwide are still having a hard time coming to grips with his death. So you can imagine how hard it has been for the elite pack of musicians who got to work with the man, and got to know him personally. They’re juggling their own grief with the desire (and demand) to honor him publicly. But they also don’t want to look like they’re out to make money or gain attention off his death.
Thompson, Bland and keyboardist Tommy Barbarella — who played with Prince’s original NPG lineup from 1990 to 1996 and have remained close compadres since then — wrestled with those thoughts and ultimately let instinct take over.
“This is just the best way we know how to go through the grieving process,” said Bland. “We’re musicians: There are things we can’t put into words and can only get out by playing.”
They settled on what seemed like an easy plan to play one show together around Prince’s June 7 birthday at a relatively low-key neighborhood venue, the Parkway Theater in south Minneapolis. When Saturday’s show sold out right away, they added Friday’s performance. That, too, sold out fast, so earlier this week they announced a third Parkway gig for next Wednesday.
“We had like 3,000 people hating on us on the message boards because they couldn’t get tickets,” Bland explained. “But it’s understandable. The fans want to be a part of this, too.”
The original New Power Generation lineup isn’t as high-profile in the public’s eyes as Prince’s “Purple Rain”-era band, the Revolution, whose members announced their own tentative plans for reunion shows later this year. However, Prince’s die-hards well remember the old NPG crew’s prowess as a live act, and the fact that they played on three of his best post-’80s records, the “Love Symbol,” “Gold Experience” and “Emancipation” LPs.
This weekend’s shows will feature tunes from that 1990-96 NPG heyday, when Prince landed his last string of hit singles, including “Diamonds and Pearls,” “Cream,” “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and “7.” But the guys also plan to cover plenty of Prince standards that predated them, as well as some deep cuts that Prince himself hadn’t touched in decades.
“It’s been fun, because when we played with him he didn’t want to do a lot of the ‘Dirty Mind’-era stuff, and some of these other songs we’re playing together for the first time,” said Barbarella. “Anytime I can play with these guys is a pleasure, but it feels extra good now.”
Another death in the family
Prince’s death was something of a double whammy for the trio since it came just a month after NPG saxophonist/flutist Brian Gallagher died from a pulmonary embolism at age 52. Gallagher and Barbarella played together in the locally beloved R&B/funk band Greazy Meal, and all three of the reuniting NPG members were joined by the late horn player in their gospel Sons of the Almighty.
“Both those deaths forced me to think more about that time in my life and what it meant to me,” Barbarella said. “When it was over [in 1996], I just tried to move on and not think about it. But looking back now, I see the significance more.”
Thompson, Bland and Barbarella have played together in many different capacities since their NPG days, including a high-profile stint as Nick Jonas’ backing band, the Administration. They stayed in touch with Prince, too.
Thompson had known Prince since childhood and remained a friend. He and Bland were frequently called in on short notice to serve as a rhythm section at Paisley Park, including everything from a Sheryl Crow collaboration to a shelved album with Maceo Parker to credits on such 2000s-era albums as “3121” and “Planet Earth.”
“With ‘3121,’ we were just there to get tones for the engineer,” Bland recalled. “Prince came walking in and couldn’t wait to grab his guitar. He said, ‘What key are we in? OK, roll on this.’ It just happened.”
Also Soul Asylum's drummer for the past decade -- he's touring a new record with Dave Pirner & Co. this summer -- Bland was back out at Prince’s studio drumming for him for some unspecified sessions this past winter. He and Thompson last saw the singer just a few weeks before his death, when he came out to see his old bandmates in their weekly Mambo’s Combo jam sessions at Bunkers in Minneapolis.
“You don’t know who’s going to be here today or tomorrow,” Bland simply surmised. “It’s made all of us be more kind to each other, and appreciate each other more. Which is another good reason to be doing these shows.”
A worthy lineup
Some of the other extended NPG members from over the years — including guitarists Mike Scott and Levi Seacer Jr. and keyboardist Morris Hayes — were invited to play but were unavailable on relatively short notice. As the number of shows has expanded, though, so has the lineup of other musicians who will be involved.
In addition to Greazy Meal singer Julius Collins — who has gigged with all three of these NPG members in different capacities over the years — they have put together a cast of musicians that includes: guitarist Oliver Leiber, a Minneapolis expat who has played with fDeluxe (aka the Family) and Paula Abdul; second keyboardist Corey Eischen, from Sleep Study and the Prince tribute band Chase and Ovation; and backup singers Katie Gearty (Hookers n’ Blow) and Rachel Holder Hennig (Wolverines).
“The game plan is to play music from other periods besides our own to celebrate him, not us — and make it a joyous occasion,” Bland said, emphasizing the latter part as if he was convincing himself of it.
“It might be a little tough,” the normally ultra-tough drummer conceded. “Just the idea of performing ‘Sometimes It Snows in April’ right now messes me up. But we’ve gotta do it.”