It’s been trickling back for weeks now, but live music may have not officially returned to Minneapolis until Dr. Mambo’s Combo finally performed again Sunday night. The moment arrived with a flood of emotions.

Sunday’s performance outside the Hook & Ladder Theater was the Prince-adored all-star group’s first performance in 15 months. That’s quite a cruel break for a band that played twice a week for 34 years at the still-shuttered downtown nightlife mainstay Bunker’s.

The show was also supposed to be guitarist and de facto leader Billy Franze’s anti-retirement party. The 72-year-old music veteran took last year’s pandemic as his cue to call it a day. He formally announced his departure from the stage a few months into quarantine. By winter, though, the man his bandmates called “The Reverend” had seen the light.

“He said, ‘I don’t think I can ever not play,” wife Lisa Franze recounted Sunday between teary hugs with family and Combo regulars.

“He wanted to do this again so bad.”

Just a month after Sunday’s show was announced, the guitarist died unexpectedly from apparent heart failure on April 27.

His wife later found his personal datebook from 2020 with a note written over the last day the Combo played, March 16: “End of an era,” it read.

“It’s almost as if he knew,” she said.

The rest of the Combo did not know what it would be like playing without the Reverend’s steady, earnest presence.

“There’s an unbelievable amount of sadness and stress wrapped up in it,” co-vocalist Julius Collins said in the days leading up to the show. “I’m not sure if I’m going to make it through it.”

With cameras on hand to livestream the sold-out show — the $15 virtual tickets went toward a college fund for the youngest of Billy’s four kids, Christian, 17 — the band members soldiered on through the gig, which threw even more unexpected calamity at them by show’s end.

The opening song was a pretty typical, classic selection that carried abnormally high meaning on this night.

“You can’t leave, ‘cuz your heart is there,” Collins and his longtime Combo singing partner Margaret Cox sang during Sly & the Family Stone’s “Family Affair.”

The emotions took hold just two songs later, after they delivered a rollicking version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” that proved this crew can funk up just about any sad or dark song thrown at them.

“It’s wonderful to perform again with these people I adore,” Collins said, then paused and visibly choked back tears.

“But it’s hard to do it without Billy. He was the essence of this band. Playing music with him was a highlight of my career.”

Both Collins and regular Combo drummer Michael Bland cited Franze as a father figure in both their professional and personal lives. True to their group’s original 1987 inception as a playground for career musicians, Bland had to miss Sunday’s gig due to his professional obligations to Soul Asylum, who are prepping for a new album and tour.

The drummer was replaced by Petar Janjic, who will also soon return to the road as a member of 2021 Grammy nominee Cory Wong’s band — as will two of the other players in the Combo mix Sunday night, keyboardist Kevin Gastonguay and guitarist Sonny Thompson.

No, that’s not a typo: Sonny T was indeed playing guitar Sunday. A longtime friend of Prince and a member of his first New Power Generation lineup (as was Bland), the versatile Thompson famously played bass in the NPG and usually in the Combo, too, but not on Sunday. Collins said having Thompson stand in for their longtime friend on guitar was “the only thing that felt right.”

Things felt more and more right as the hot night blazed on. It was so hot, in fact, a nearby transformer blew up mid-show. Electricity went out for nearly an hour throughout much of the Hook & Ladder’s East Lake Street neighborhood, which at this time a year ago was still smoldering from rioting after the death of George Floyd.

Already working with a show-must-go-on attitude, band members waited it out and returned to the stage for a full-wattage set that included staples from the Staple Singers, Jackson 5, Earth, Wind & Fire and even Minneapolis’ own Next (“Too Close”). They ended with an intense version of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” which culminated in Thompson channeling Franze with a long, fiery solo.

Early in the second set, Collins also slipped in the news that Combo fans had been waiting to hear: The band will return to Bunker’s on a weekly basis starting July 11. However, shows will only happen on Sunday nights and no longer Mondays.

Whatever they do from here on out, the rest of the Combo members have the blessing of Franze’s family members, who wore wearing matching T-shirts on Sunday with Billy’s name on them and an inscription that read, “Music doesn’t die. It lives on forever.”

“Billy always used to say, ‘This band will go on long after I’m gone,'” Lisa Franze said. “I think he was proud of that and embraced that.”

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

@ChrisRstrib

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