Burnt Sugar Players
Vernon Reid - conductor. guitar
Mikel Banks - vocals
Micah Gaugh - vocals, horns
Karma Mayet Johnson - vocals
Shelly Nicole - vocals
Vinia Mojica – guest siren
Bruce Mack - vocals, keys
V. Jeffery Smith - horns
Mazz Swift - violin, vocals
Lewis "Flip" Barnes - horns
"Moist" Paula Henderson - horns
Dave "Smoota" Smith - horns
Andre Lassalle - guitars
Ben Tyree - guitars
Leon Gruenbaum - keys
Jared Michael Nickerson - bass
Lafrae Sci - Drums
Greg Tate - creative misdirection/projections
Put this in your musical blender and hit “spin” – the guitarist from funk-rock band Living Colour + a Sun Ra-esque Arkestra + a set of deconstructed, funkified Steely Dan cover songs… equals Burnt Sugar in a rare area appearance at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, over the weekend.
The 17-piece band, started in 1999 and organized by co-founder Greg Tate and Jared Michael Nickerson (“on bass…and business!”) , was conducted by Living Colour’s Vernon Reid (Reid and Tate also founded the Black Rock Coalition in the 1980s), along with accompanying video clips compiled by Tate, for a spirited two-hour celebration of musical re-invention.
Officially titled, "Any World (That I'm Welcome To): Sex Race Hoodoo & The Steely Dan Conductions- A Hipster Carnivalesque in Post Soul Vernacular" (whew!), Reid set his sights on Steely Dan, after Burnt Sugar previously re-interpreted and “turned sideways”, the songbooks of James Brown and David Bowie.
Thankfully, the evening was not simply a re-gurgitation of Steely Dan’s greatest hits and songs most familiar to radio listeners; rather, it was a handpicked batch of selections that lent themselves best to the musical re-interpretation that Reid and Co., were striving for. Reid jumped, shouted, and played crowd hypeman as much as conductor for the evening (much like Isaac Hayes would do); inciting the audience to be as interactive as possible, and quickly sweating through the back of his silk vest.
For ‘Monkey in your Soul’, Reid picked up the guitar for one of only two times during the evening, slightly holding back with a rhythm riff, as the crowded band did most of the musical heavy lifting. The four dedicated background vocalists each had their turn in the spotlight for a song or two, and most of the primary musicians also stepped forward for a lead vocal turn, on one song each.
Corresponding still images projected were as divergent as MLK and Malcom X, to Wall Street occupiers and artist J-M. Basquiat, to dedicated photos matched with a particular song, such as Robert Downey, Jr. with ‘Kid Charlemagne’, giving the show somewhat of a visually social-conscious edge.
Each member of this “Gotham-based ensemble of pan-ethnic sound warriors” shone in their own right, particularly on tracks like ‘Haitian Divorce’, which was expanded and done in a loose and funky island-jazz vibe. Before each song, the title was flashed on the screen along with a key lyrical verse, causing the audience to applaud in anticipation with their favorites from the Dan catalog.
Some selections, such as ‘Deacon Blues’ remained more faithful to the original version, while a song like ‘Black Cow’(purposely? titled ‘Black Crow’ on the setlist) was updated to sound more urgent, while the piano/organ foundation of the song, remained intact. While it provided added insight to be at least somewhat familiar with the Steely Dan originals beforehand; it was not mandatory, as each re-interpretation strongly stood as-is, on its own merits.
The main set closing, ‘Do It Again’ was one of the more jazz-sounding selections, playfully stretched out to give ample solo time to several members, as tempo would rise and fall. Drummer Lafrae Sci was particularly impressive on this night, ably excelling with every song style and beat change, and drumming with a true joy and passion for her craft.
To raucous applause, the Arkestra re-emerged for a 10 min. encore jam that brought the so far mostly-reserved-in-nature crowd down from their seats, to dancing as one at the front of the stage, as the band riffed on. Two hours later, the crowd wanted more, but would have to wait until the next rare area appearance of this highly versatile collective.
Score another musically interesting and boundary-defying show for the Walker Art Center.
Burnt Sugar at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (26 April 2014)
Photo courtesy of Walker Art