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September 2, 2014

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Prince’s guitarist is amped for performances at The Joint

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Members of Prince’s backing band 3rdEyeGirl, from left: Hannah Ford, Donna Grantis and Ida Nielsen.

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Mary J. Blige and Prince embrace during Night 2 of the 2012 iHeartRadio Music Festival at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

Donna Grantis shares the stage with Prince, but even she sometimes struggles to list all of the reasons why he is among the greatest entertainers of his generation.

“He really has it all,” says Grantis, guitarist in Prince’s backing band 3rdEyeGirl. “He’s a phenomenal guitarist, bassist, drummer, singer, producer, bandleader, entertainer. ... Did I throw songwriter in there?”

Not yet.

“Songwriter, too.”

Maybe dancer?

“Oh, wow, and a dancer. … He really does have it all,” Grantis says. “Even if he was just a guitarist, he’d be known as one of the greatest guitarists, ever.”

Prince is playing The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel for four shows Friday and Saturday (times are 8 and 11:30 p.m., and tickets starting at $55 to each show are still available on the Ticketmaster website). Prince’s strongest connection to Las Vegas was his blistering run as headliner at The Rio from November 2006 to May 2007, in the 900-seat Club 3121. That venue was most recently Crown Theater and then Krave Massive at The Rio.

Grantis never saw those midnight shows, which often stretched until sunrise as Prince often continued the seamless, guitar-driven performance to his adjacent jazz club. She has never even visited Las Vegas, so her first trip to the city will be to see Prince at The Joint -- from the stage.

“It’s such an incredible turn of events,” she says. “I am really just still taking it all in.”

Grantis saw a Prince show from the audience in November 2011 at Air Canada Center in her hometown of Toronto. Grantis had established herself as a proficient guitarist and had posted some YouTube clips of her playing. About a year after that concert, Grantis received a call from Prince drummer Hannah Ford Welton, who had been asked by the artist to find a great guitarist to fill a tight, all-female band for his upcoming tour.

“I got this e-mail from Hannah asking me if I was interested in jamming with Prince at Paisley Park,” Grantis says, referring to Prince’s recording studios in Minneapolis. “They were going full steam ahead with 3rdEyeGirl. It was an audition, for sure, but I had no idea of how things would evolve. If you’d told me then we’d be touring the West Coast and making an album … wow, I don’t know. It’s just been awesome.”

The lineup made its formal debut in March on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and has been rehearsing exhaustively since November.

As he showed in his performances at The Rio, which were seamless and devoid of any apparent blueprint, Prince makes mid-song changes almost whimsically. He’ll throw a nod or hand signal to the band, and they are along for the ride.

Grantis, who began perfecting Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses songs at age 13, delights in that challenge.

“We play the songs differently, night-to-night, and really anything can happen,” she says. “He is a master bandleader, and we look for him to call out to take a solo, or see the head nod. We just follow him. It’s such a small group, so we have that interaction among us.”

The band is a three-piece, with Grantis and Ford joined by bassist Ida Nielsen. Prince has been shuffling the set list already in the tour, which launched April 15 in Vancouver. The universally familiar “Let's Go Crazy” has been offset by versions of the crunching 2010 release “Cause and Effect.” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” from 1987’s “Sign o’ the Times” has been set up by covers of India.Arie’s “Brown Skin” and Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music.”

“We’re playing songs that he has never performed live before that span his entire catalog,” Grantis says. “When it comes to this tour, anybody who has ever wanted to hear Prince just rip it on guitar, this is the tour to catch. … It’s been a long time since he’s developed a band from scratch. It’s raw and real -- and really cool.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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