Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Burnt Sugar Play James Brown in Bed-Stuy

Most cover bands are either a disappointment or a joke. This being New York, there are actually some covers bands here who transcend the label: Tammy Faye Starlite’s brutally satirical Rolling Stones and Blondie projects; the sometimes 18-piece Main Squeeze Orchestra, who perform original all-accordion arrangements of pop songs; and Burnt Sugar. Of course, Burnt Sugar aren’t just a cover band: founder/conductor Greg Tate has been leading them through their trademark hypnotic, psychedelic, atmospheric, improvisational soundscapes since the 90s. But they’re also a mighty funk orchestra. Last night at Tompkins Park in Bed-Stuy, they played an all-James Brown program that did justice to the Godfather of Soul.

How do you cover Jaaaaaaaaaaaaames Brown without turning it into camp, or a parody? By doing the songs pretty much how he did them – and by not overdoing the vocals. A rotating cast of singers, both male and female, took turns on lead vocals (often in the same song), the main guy wearing a James Brown helmet wig. But as much fun as everybody was having, nobody went completely over the top: no cape trick, no Vegas showmanship, just a lot of good tunes and good history. The band was colossal, in both senses of the word: a five-piece horn section; five harmony singers (one of whom had to multitask on turntables, something they could have left in the rehearsal room and the music wouldn’t have suffered); three dancers, who mingled with the audience, as well as violin, keys, guitar, bass and drums. When bassist Jared Nickerson’s slinky Bootsy Collins lines were audible in the amphitheatre’s boomy sonics, it was clear that he was having the time of his life. The horns lept in joyously and disappeared in a split-second, just as Brown would have wanted, and the singers both in front and behind the band delivered the songs with a passion that wouldn’t let up. Just a few of the standouts from this particular lineup: violinist Mazz Swift, whose austere textures were a welcome anchor; Bruce Mack’s alternately funky and lush keys and organ, Paula Henderson (of Rev. Vince Anderson’s band) on baritone sax, and Imani Uzuri taking a couple of characteristically alluring cameos out in front when she wasn’t singing harmonies.

There was also a multimedia component that packed a surprising punch. A screen behind the band showed slides of various James Brown property (shades, stagewear, personal effects) auctioned off after his death, while an actor played the role of auctioneer between several of the songs or segues. The most powerful moments of the night were when Brown’s soul came up for auction, and later when the actor and the singer in the JB wig evoked the introduction of the famous Boston concert after the Martin Luther King assassination where Brown is commonly credited from saving the city from the rioting that was taking place all over the country; this particular interpretation had Brown ignoring the Boston mayor’s well-intentioned condescension with a casually stern but insightful exhortation to the crowd to chill out. Other segments played up Brown’s message of self-empowerment and defiant ambition.

And the songs were supertight: I Feel Good, Super Bad, a cheery singalong of Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud), a surprisingly upbeat It’s a Man’s World, a version of Please Please Please that played up its doo-wop origins, and a surprising amount of material from throughout his career, not just the classic hits from the 60s. Brown’s angel dust period was vividly evoked via a long, atonal instrumental – a good approximation of this band’s original stuff – backing a spoken-word piece about heroin delivered by the harmony singer/turntablist. The crowd, sparse as the sun went down, grew in numbers and enthusiasm as the night wore on, the band’s dancers getting a party going in front of the stage. They’ll be there tonight at 8 if you’re in the mood.

June 18, 2011 - Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I saw this concert at the Apollo and would have loved to have seen it again at Tomkins Park. Burnt Sugar musicians and performers played James Brown’s music with care and with the humility one feels in the wake of true genius. Each member of the group bore deep into his essence and illuminated for me a deeper sense of who he was.

    Comment by Linda Katz | June 26, 2011 | Reply


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