'This is real time': A night with Prince

JON BREAM | Updated 5/20/2013

After decades of silence, the Minnesota rocker opens up: “This is real time.”

Prince performed last week in Denver.
Photo: Kevin Mazur • WireImage

– The e-mail arrived at 3 p.m. Monday, marked urgent: “Can you fly out to Denver tonight and cover Prince’s show? You can have time with each of the girls [in his band 3rdEyeGirl] and there is a chance Prince will talk.”

This is how Prince rolls. Last-minute, vague promises, no guarantees. Neither punctuality, nor sleep, is a priority. Having covered Prince since Day 1 of his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career, I’ve been through more false alarms with him than a self-installed security system.

This time would be very different. There is a new cast of characters around Prince — both on- and offstage — and a sense of freshness and newfound freedom. The arrogance and attitude that have long permeated Prince’s world are gone, replaced by the hunger, excitement and enthusiasm of youth.

• • •

We landed in Denver at 9:30 p.m., about an hour after the start of his first of two sold-out shows Monday at the Ogden Theatre. Waiting was a hired driver who’d chauffeured Prince and his girlfriend on Sunday, the first night of the Mile High gigs. He said the Minnesota music legend didn’t talk much. After performing two 90-minute concerts, Prince and his entourage went to a 2:15 a.m. private screening of “Iron Man 3” but he left early with his girlfriend.

Our black SUV maneuvered through a dark alley and pulled up to a black brick building — the Ogden’s stage entrance. Prince’s first show had ended. My time with 3rdEyeGirl had come. The blonde, brunette and almost-redhead lit up the all-black dressing room with smiles, giddy energy and a single sequined teardrop glued under each of their eyes.

Prince had hired auburn-haired Ida Nielsen, from Denmark, in 2010 to play bass in his larger NPG band. He didn’t remember how he’d learned about her. He had also forgotten how or why he found drummer Hannah Ford Welton, a vivacious blonde from Louisville, in a YouTube video on the Internet. And the two women discovered dark-haired guitarist Donna Grantis, from Toronto, on the Web.

All three have been living in Chanhassen and rehearsing at Prince’s Paisley Park complex since November. Since they made their stage debut in January at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, they’ve done 34 concerts, with a performance scheduled on Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards (7 p.m. on KSTP, Ch. 5) and two shows Saturday at the 3,200-capacity Myth nightclub in Maplewood.

Rehearsals have been rigorous — typically eight- to 10-hour days, learning the 60-plus songs they’ve played on tour.

“Usually on days off we go to Mall of America,” Grantis said. “Sometimes we go to the Dakota.”

“Sometimes we do girly things,” Nielsen interjected.

And they often play ping-pong with Prince. “He’s fantastic; he’s scary good,” said Ford Welton.

Prince’s manager stuck her head through the doorway: “You go on in five minutes.” Interview over. As I left the dressing room area, Prince walked in, all burgeoning Afro and black jacket with shoulder pads. After an unnecessary introduction, he extended his hand and said with a smile, “Of course I know Jon Bream.”

• • •

Our first introduction was in 1977, in a San Francisco-area studio where he was recording his debut album for Warner Bros. Actually, he stayed behind a glass partition, monotonously tapping a drumstick on a cymbal and declining to shake hands.

A year later, though, when he was debuting his new band for Warners executives in a Minneapolis theater, we sat together for a 90-minute interview at the Lake Harriet house where he was rehearsing. Afterward, the shy 20-year-old told me that was the longest he’d ever talked to anyone in his life. In 1980, there was an interview on the telephone before his Orpheum Theatre gig and, a year later, an invite to a tête-à-tête at Met Center that — surprise — turned out to be a dressing-room scene in a movie that he never finished.