Morris Hayes from New Power Generation Talks 'Celebrating Prince' Tribute at First Avenue: 'You Cannot Replace Prince'
New Power Generation, Prince’s backing band through the 1990s and 2000s, will headline a tribute concert to their former boss at at First Avenue, the vaunted Minneapolis nightclub that the late singer helped make famous by filming scenes for Purple Rain there.
The Sept. 13 concert, “Celebrating Prince,” will be live-streamed as a pay-per-view event by Live Alliance, the same event production and broadcasting company that set a PPV record with the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of The Grateful Dead” shows from Chicago’s Soldier Field in 2015.
Sept. 13 was chosen because the week of Sept. 10 marks the 25th anniversary of the 1993 release of Prince’s first greatest hits release The Hits/The B-Sides. The concert marks only the second time NPG has performed at the venue and the first since a brief set in 2007.
For fans attending the event, tickets are priced at $31.21, the same price Prince’s tickets were for his 2007 “The Earth Tour: 21 Nights in London” residency and the title of his 31st studio album, released in 2006. The PPV price is around $9.99.
The decision to get involved in the event was an easy one, says Live Alliance president Nate Parienti. “[Prince’s] songbook is one of the most influential and important in American music and we’re happy to help share this interpretation of it with the world,” he said. As far as the potential audience, Parienti added, “with the worldwide fan base of NPG and the music of Prince, as well as some special guests, there hopefully will be several thousands of fans tuning in to the broadcast, both live and on demand. We have a number of plans for this concert over the next several years. Profitability will result over various distribution of the content.” Among the plans are a broadcast on cable television and eventual DVD release with additional footage.
“Celebrating Prince” is coordinating with the PRN Alumni Foundation, a non-profit comprised of Prince employees, for a fundraising effort. Proceeds from merchandise sales, including special commemorative T-shirts designed by Prince’s longtime art designer Steve Parke, and meet-and-greet packages with NPG, will go to the various charities and underprivileged youth Prince supported.
NPG will play Prince’s greatest hits alongside his hidden gems. The core line-up includes Morris Hayes (longtime musical director and keyboards), Tommy Barbarella (keyboards), Levi Seacer, Jr. (guitar), Tony Mosley (guitar, vocals), Sonny Thompson (bassist), Damon Dickson (percussion, dancer, background vocals), MacKenzie (lead vocals) and Keith Anderson (saxophone). The NPG Hornheads, a brass ensemble assembled by Prince in 1991, are confirmed to play as well.
Hayes talked to Billboard about NPG taking Prince’s legendary stage without their fearless, perfectionist leader.
What is the hardest part about paying tribute to someone with the magnitude that Prince's legacy has?
The hardest part is as great as all his bands were—and he had some really great bands and great players— nothing can fill the hole that's that big [left by his death]. The line that I walk is trying to make sure that whatever music that we pick — and the great thing is there's so much of it —that we can really pick from a cream of the crop of all of the stuff that he's done. And what we try to do is just do the best justice to that music that we did. The great thing is is that we're the same people that played on that stuff, so we can recreate it.
What do you look for in terms of a singer to handle Prince’s vocals, including your new singer MacKenzie?
Not necessarily somebody that's trying to imitate Prince, but bring the kind of energy to the song that he would bring to it. I think so far we've been able to manage that.
What was the relationship between New Power Generation and Prince like?
I think it probably holds true for any of the bands, Prince was quite a perfectionist. So he was a tough customer to deal with in terms of music because he's always a very serious about how his music translated and how he presented it. It was very important to him that we respected music. He used to all the time just say “Respect the music. That's the biggest thing.”
What was your personal relationship with him like?
Oh man, I was there the longest so I learned early on that he's the boss and so my thing was hopefully just trying to stay out of his way in terms of don't be the problem. Sometimes he'd expect something from me and I'd have to figure it out, so I would try to do things as speedily as I could because he had zero patience. For him, it was just like “Hey, that's your thing. You should be able to manage it quickly and join us.” So it was always a thing for me to just keep up. And I didn't read music, so he said “I don't care if it's hieroglyphics, whatever you got to do, because I don't want to have to be waiting for you. I already know my music, Morris, do you?” So that was the thing, I just knew I had to stay late and I had to come early in order to make sure that I wasn't the reason everything was being held up.
How do you feel about performing at First Avenue?
First Avenue is Prince's ultimate. It's like how people know Prince, it's Prince culture. It's so engrained in our canon. We just only played for an hour or so back in like 2007. For us to be able to go to this historic place that he really put on the map in terms of where everybody knew what First Avenue was, man it's huge. That's our CBGB, that's our Studio 54, that's our place. We're very excited.
What is the key to paying homage to Prince in your shows and still doing your own thing?
The trick is you cannot replace Prince. It's impossible. He's an anomaly. Michael Jackson is an anomaly. Those people, you can't replace them. They're just gone, and we have their legacy, their music. What we want to just be able to do is be careful with the legacy and be careful with the music, that we respect it, and be able to perform it in a way if Prince were to see it, he'd be like “Yeah, I'd go hop on the stage and do my thing!” He'd feel good about it because you're killing it, and that's what we want to do.