Prince’s backing band to keep his music alive

Sharing a stage with Prince was a thrill, an honor and an adventure, says musician Morris Hayes, who for 20 years fronted the maverick pop band, the New Power Generation.

Once Prince left, you never knew what awaited you, he says. Hayes recalls a time in the 1990s when Prince would set fire to a concert and then stay up all night performing at an “after-party” for fans (as he did after being the head of RDS poster in Dublin in 1992).

“We were literally playing three shows a day,” smiles Hayes from his base in Minneapolis. “Our sound tests lasted for hours. In the sound-check, we were just jamming. And then we would do the easy part with the show. And then came the after-show. It was a long day.”

Prince died in 2016 – the year pop seemed doomed by the grim reaper (David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and George Michael would also die that year). But the New Power Generation lives on and travels the world to help keep Prince’s music alive by paying homage to his iconoclastic spirit. Irish fans will have the chance to experience their moving tribute to their late boss when they perform at Cork Opera House on October 29 as part of the Jazz Festival.

“He was such a magnetic performer. You can’t replace him,” Hayes says, explaining that NPG lead singer MacKenzie isn’t trying to impersonate Prince. It’s more about conjuring his spirit than to look like him or look like him.

“We try to represent the music in such a way that if Prince was looking at us, he would want to come on stage. The idea is to give fans a good idea of ​​what it was like before playing Prince. MacKenzie does a really good job of singing the songs without trying to imitate Prince – because it just doesn’t work.

The past few years have been fascinating for Prince fans. During the NPG tour, the estate of the artist who died last year shared with the world Welcome 2 America, an unreleased Prince album from 2010.

The New Power Generation play at the Cork Opera House as part of the jazz festival. Photo: Jan Van Hecke

If the project has its admirers and detractors, one thing is undeniable is its foresight – with Prince warning on the title track that America was heading for a dark and scary place. A decade later, as the United States recovers from the Trump presidency and heeds the message delivered by the Black Lives Matter protests, his foresight is striking.

“It was really an amazing thing,” said Hayes, who starred on Welcome 2 America. “I remember when he called me and I went to the Paisley studio [Park, Prince’s complex in Minneapolis]. He said “we would like you to come and play on something”. I remember sitting there listening to the tracks – and I was like “wow…that’s really poignant”.

“And then it came full circle and here we are. It’s still poignant, even more so now than when he did it. It’s remarkable. His ability to foreshadow this kind of thing was incredible.”

Prince was proud to be from Minneapolis, where he built Paisley Park (and where he died). The city was also ground zero for Black Lives Matters protests following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.

“He loved Minneapolis. He always stayed close to home. This [the protests] would have hit him in a way like nothing else, man. I just wonder what he would have done? What music would he have made? I know it would have been something special because I know what Minneapolis meant to him. And so that was a central point of all of this – that would have been interesting.

As anyone who saw Prince in concert will attest, he was an extraordinary blend of the humble and the magnetic. He was visibly shy – and yet also electrified with 24-watt rock star charisma.

“I guess it was that Gemini thing — that duality,” Hayes says. “He was a very shy, introverted person in a way. He was a Clark Kent-Superman thing. He was explosive on stage. He was very lively and also very shy. He had those two sides to him all the time. .

Prince and the new generation of energy at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Cork, in 1990. Photo: Irish Examiner Archive
Prince and the new generation of energy at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Cork, in 1990. Photo: Irish Examiner Archive

Prince started The New Power Generation as a backing band in 1990 (after performing with The Revolution). Hayes was signed in 1992, six years after Prince discovered him at a club in Memphis. They were close – or at least as close as Prince allowed you to be. But he was also a demanding boss.

“James Brown was his plan: how he handled his situation. He was very tough on stage. He didn’t like mistakes. He said people were paying to see something big. He didn’t want you to happen with half your game. He wanted you with your full game. We rehearsed hard and played hard.

Yet while it was difficult to get close, he also respected the opinions of those he trusted. “I confronted him once about a problem. I was a little worried for him. I confided in him about it. He assured me he was cool and all. He took a week off and just left.

“We usually get instructions on what to do when he’s out: do this or whatever. We haven’t heard from him. As soon as he got back he called my name on the intercom. I was working in Paisley. He said, ‘Morris came into my office.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s been gone for a week and the first person he wants to see, it’s me”.

Hayes feared the worst. “But he was like, ‘Hey man, I just wanted to thank you for coming over and talking to me.’ – and I’ve never gone a week without picking up my guitar or writing a song.”

Hayes says the star was very close to people around him. “Prince was very compartmentalized in the circle he was in at the time. He was always cool with me. But once you leave, you’re out of that cube. He was a fantastic person – he was very good with me.”

Prince played Cork in July 1990. This was several years before Morris joined the project. However, the NPG members who were there praise the concert at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. “It will be a pleasure to go back. Tony [Mosley, NPG guitarist] was at this show. We will be happy to go back and bring some energy.

  • The New Power Generation will perform at Cork Opera House on Saturday 29th October as part of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. See guinnesscorkjazz.com

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