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New Power Generation, Prince's former backing band, celebrates the music

Morris Hayes (from left), Mackenzie Green and Levi Seacer, members of the New Power Generation, will perform a Prince tribute at Big Top Chautauqua. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

It happened again the other day. Here it is, more than two years after Prince died, and members of the New Power Generation broke down while playing "Purple Rain" during rehearsal.

"We were all crying at the end," said Levi Seacer, a musician who was part of Prince's inner circle for decades. "We all thought we were over that part of it."

"Nobody said anything," added keyboard player Morris Hayes. "We've played that song more times than we can count. Some days it's just cool and some days it catches you — that dude is gone."

Players from Prince's former backing band have been touring a tribute concert that has made stops in Australia and Europe, in addition to a performance during Super Bowl festivities this past winter in Minneapolis. Next up: "Celebrating Prince" plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Big Top Chautauqua near Bayfield. The lineup includes old-school NPGers like Seacer and Hayes, in addition to Mackenzie — who goes by one name — a flexible-voiced, loose-limbed newbie with Virginia roots.

The New Power Generation was introduced in the early 1990s and played with Prince during his Nude Tour in 1990. The band, which was part of Prince's world into the 2010s, was last featured on "Hit n Run Phase Two," the studio album released almost a year and a half before he died.

New Power Generation reunited a few months after Prince's death, then picked it up in earnest around the first anniversary with a show at Paisley Park. When they played as part of the Super Bowl LII hoopla, a big-band, small-stage gig at the Dakota Jazz Club, a reviewer for The Current described the rotating cast of musicians as being "like a couple that could finish each other's sentences."

Finding Prince

Hayes can tell you the exact day of his first Prince concert: Dec. 17, 1982. He still carries the faded nub of ticket stub in his wallet — despite the fact that he has lost the wallet three times. Once the wallet dropped from his pocket at a movie theater. The same thing happened at Old Navy. The last time, it was picked from his pocket.

He hasn't always gotten the cash back, but the ticket keeps turning up.

Hayes was in about the 50th row for that show in Pine Bluff, Ark. The Time opened, and it was amazing, he said.

"I'm going to play with them," he remembered saying aloud. "Then Prince came out, and I said 'That dude is bad! I'm going to play with him, too!'"

Hayes credits verbalizing it with activating it. Within a decade, he had been in both bands.

This sort of thing happens with him. It's also how he ended up with a Fender Rhodes keyboard, just like the one he saw on "Soul Train."

Seacer knew who Prince was before he saw him at the Circle Star Theater in San Francisco in 1980. Word was, Prince played all the instruments — something only Stevie Wonder could do, as far as Seacer knew. Kool & The Gang opened the show, and then Prince came out in his underwear and boots, no top.

"I have to admit, at the time I was like 'I have virgin eyes, I can't be watching that stuff,'" Seacer recalled.

They were introduced a few years later by mutual friend Sheila E. After the Revolution disbanded, Seacer was tapped for the new project. The call came on Friday; rehearsal was Monday.

"He's no notice, it's either yes or no — and you don't say no," said Seacer, who played bass and sang backup.

Seacer, who ended up working in the studio at Paisley Park, occasionally called on Hayes for jobs. The keyboard player heard a rumor that he was in-in, actually in the band, from a few friends. He was summoned to his new boss' office at Glam Slam, the former Minneapolis-based nightclub.

"What's up, grandson, you want some work," Hayes said Prince asked. "I said, 'I'll be over to mow that lawn for you in the morning.'"

The new guy

Mackenzie, the new kid in the band, didn't grow up listening to Prince. He was raised in a strict Southern Baptist home, he said, and it wasn't allowed. He tuned in to the artist when he went to college and found something relatable in his sound.

"It reminded me of the music I was used to listening to and singing in church," he said.

Later, when Mackenzie was in cover bands that played Prince's music, he developed a deeper relationship with the performer, he said. Even though they never met, his death hit hard.

"I wasn't able to listen to his music for a year after that," Mackenzie said. He would walk out of stores where it was playing, threaten to get out of cars if it wasn't turned off.

"I can't even imagine how these brothers are able to speak on it. Even to this day, it's hard to wrap my mind around," he said.

Members of the New Power Generation saw Mackenzie on stage with friends in the music biz. Hayes said the first thing he noticed about him was his stage presence.

"He was moving, he was grooving and yeah, he's got chops — front man chops," he said.

The band's management asked Mackenzie to join the group and, so far, it's been a good match. He can hit Prince-ian high-high heights, then bring it down to a growl. In YouTube videos, he presents as confident and looks like he is having fun.

"It's a lot of pressure," Mackenzie said. "It's what I wanted. It's what I searched for as an artist. Something to push me to the next step of my artistry. I'm not trying to impersonate or recreate. There's only one Prince. Period. End of story."

His new bandmates believe Mackenzie would be Prince approved, they said. The work ethic is there, however: "He'd think he's too tall," Hayes joked.

Green is 6-foot-1, compared to Prince's 5-foot-3.

'Beautiful days and tragedy'

Hayes said he had grown worried about Prince in the days leading up to his death. There had been news of an emergency plane landing at Quad Cities International Airport. Prince was treated at a nearby hospital. It was publicly blamed on dehydration.

Hayes was up late working on a project, and on the morning of April 21, 2016, he woke up to a hot phone. He had 400-plus messages, and it was ringing when he picked it up.

"I just literally, I started weeping," he said, "like somebody just shot my mama. I don't believe it. I man-cried for a good 20 minutes just, like, on my knees. It was just unbelievable."

Seacer got word from the coroner's office about 5 minutes before it hit the news, he said.

"First of all, I don't know what it is about beautiful days and tragedy," he said. His first call was to Sheila E., he said. She didn't answer. "I was devastated, but it's bigger than that."

When he was in Prince's band, he said, there were moments when he knew he wasn't going to pass this way again. No matter who he played with, it would never be like this.

"You know what," he said. "As far as musicians and artists, there may be another one that comes along, but I don't see it in my lifetime."

Prince's bandmates remember him as tough, but also funny. Professional. When Madonna secured a $60 million deal with Time Warner, Prince said: "They're going to give me $100 million," Hayes remembered. Sure enough. He inked the deal with Warner Bros. that same year.

It wasn't all just magic and mystical, though it sometimes looked like that.

"Dreaming is cool, but you gotta do the work," Seacer said. "You gotta put it in action."

The artist also made personal connections. Hayes remembered the time that Prince showed up on his front steps to thank him, explain why he was tough on him and praise his work.

A celebration

It's not easy to make a setlist for a Prince tribute, his former bandmates admitted during a recent visit to Duluth. Signature songs, obscure surprises. And then there is the stuff these longtime musicians are still just discovering.

"We're sitting in the car, we're riding and we're listening to Prince's B-side stuff," Hayes said. "And it's crazy, like crazy good stuff. It just reminds you of how much music he had."

Throughout the band's tour, Hayes said they've been met with strong outpourings of feelings.

"People in the front row crying, people feeling the music, it's really heavy," he said. "We're not trying to toy with anybody's emotions, we're trying to deliver the best performance and represent the music the best we can. At the end of the day, it's a celebration."

If you go

What: New Power Generation

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Big Top Chautauqua, near Bayfield

Tickets: Go to www.bigtop.org

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