What a difference a year makes.
Last June, a mere six weeks after Prince’s death, enterprising Twin Cities singer Julius Collins put together a tribute to the Purple One with members of Prince’s 1990s band the New Power Generation (NPG). The three sold-out shows at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis came too soon. Emotions were too raw; the band was under-rehearsed, and movies and photos of Prince projected behind the band were distracting and discomfiting. And let’s not discuss the inadequate sound system.
Now this all-star Twin Cities band has returned with a show dubbed This Thing Called Life to mark Prince’s birthday week (he was born June 7, 1958). The band is well-rehearsed; the visuals of Prince are gone, and the emotions are more celebratory than sad. And the sound system was spot-on.
Probably the only concern on Thursday — the first of three nights at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District — was that only about 200 clubgoers showed up.
Maybe it was the ticket price ($45-$55). Maybe it was because a popular Minneapolis Prince tribute band of a decade standing, Chase and Ovation, was playing a few blocks away at Bunkers for $10. Or maybe people are just purpled out.
That’s too bad because Thursday’s performance was often great and seldom less than very good.
There was a secret weapon. And NPG drummer Michael Bland acknowledged it during the second of two hourlong sets.
“The Hornheads. They’re bad, aren’t they?” he declared. “We’d be 65 to 70 percent without them.”
Prince’s touring horn section in the 1990s — saxophonists Kathy Jensen and Kenni Holmen, trumpeters Dave Jensen and Steve Strand and trombonist Michael Nelson — made nearly every number on which they played special.
The Hornheads fueled the groove on a very funky version of “America” from Prince’s 1985 album “Around the World in a Day,” which came across as James Brown meets the NPG. They jazzed up “Uptown,” playing the usual synthesizer lines on horns, peppered “Let’s Work” with crisp staccato fills and pushed “Cream” over the top with Chicago-like rock-jazz passages.
The ferociously funky rhythm section of Bland and NPG bassist Sonny Thompson drove the band all night long. They made clubgoers feel the music — just like all of Prince’s bands did. Thompson’s fat, popping bass line put the vitality in “Pop Life,” one of the show’s highlights.
Guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker, a new addition to the This Thing Called Life band, made his presence felt, especially playing the famous solo on “Purple Rain” with gusto and urgency. He and Mint Condition guitarist O’Dell helped turn “Computer Blue” into a noisy, heavy rocker.
And there was a “real life rock ’n’ roll star,” as Collins put it — Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum, whose participation made a difference. Not a singer usually associated with Prince songs, Pirner commanded the stage on 1988’s “I Wish U Heaven” and rocked the house on “The Cross,” a 1987 number that Prince often took to church.
Collins, who’s best known from the funk band Greazy Meal, sang lead on most of the numbers. Although he’s a talented vocalist with an easy falsetto, Collins was not as entertaining as Pirner, who carries on like a free spirit. Collins also enlisted his pal Jamecia Bennett of Sounds of Blackness to light up the stage with her big gospelly voice and glitzy presence. She did duets, sang backup and soloed on Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl.”
Not all the tunes on the set list were well-known. The 1992 ballad “Damn U” and the 1995 NPG single “Get Wild” were performed along with such “Purple Rain” favorites as “I Would Die 4 U” and “Darling Nikki.”
Collins promised changes in the set list and different guests for Friday and Saturday. Ah, what a difference a day might make.