In bold, 10ft tall letters, ‘Black Pumas’ unmistakably projects from a billboard on London’s Kingsland Road in Dalston, advertising a gig the soul duo from Austin, Texas recently announced for later this year. At a considerably larger venue. Before they’ve even played this date in the city. Indicative of snowballing popularity, wouldn’t you agree.
Despite the big-budget marketing push, it’d take a seriously cynical individual to deny Black Pumas the acclaim; seemingly everywhere at present, whether it be television performances or awards ceremonies, the combination of vocalist Eric Burton and producer Adrian Quesada has certainly struck a chord on both sides of the Atlantic.
Islington Assembly Hall is completely sold out, and there’s a palpable sense of excitement, like people already know how the performance is going to unfold. After only just a few bars, it’s evident that Burton is nothing short of a bonafide star, less ‘in the making’, more ready-made.
And boy, can he wail; decked-out in a serious, militant black jacket and beanie, Burton’s energy, presence, and magnetism is undeniable. Hitting each note with real purpose, the effortlessness of his off-the-cuff vocal ad-libs and charming crowd engagements feel distinctly James Brown, but his voice shares the breezy-but-equally-vigorous qualities of Marvin Gaye. Heavy praise, indeed, and whilst I’m trying to refrain from using superlatives, it’s difficult when the ‘real deal’ is staring you in the face.
The duo received a first Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist off the back of their eponymous debut album, made in earnest to evoke the analog, psychedelic-infused soul and funk music of the late 60’s/early 70’s. But it’d be unfair to label their aesthetic as a pastiche; Latin rhythms, Dick Dale-esque stratocaster riffs, and subtle layers of organ add complexities and texture to their take on soul, which on stage, translates organically.
Ultimately - and this is no negative thing - it feels as though Black Pumas is a vehicle for Burton, to harness his indisputable quality. Given that Quesada began writing tracks for Burton before even recruiting the vocalist who plied his trade as a busker, it’s a fair assessment. Their supporting musicians, complete with backing singers are super tight-knit, and Burton doesn’t hesitate to give them their due respect slightly earlier in the set than usual, but it let’s the band focus on their pure, passionate performance with Burton egging on the crowd at any given opportunity.
The blissful groove of ‘Black Moon Rising’, the street-level vibe of ‘Know You Better’, and pain-laden balladry of ‘OCT 33’ have an intentionally timeless sound, so much so that they genuinely feel like classic tracks you should’ve heard before. Universal, inclusive anthem ‘Colors’ is the jewel in the crown of the set though, and everyone in attendance already knew (most of) the words, given that they were hoarsely belted back at Burton upon his command.
Before bringing an electric set to a close with ‘Fire’, a transcendental A Capella version of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ hushed the crowd; a track Burton would perform regularly during his days and nights of busking, this rendition serving as an homage to his past and how far he’s come. What’s clear, however, is that Black Pumas have a big future.
Photo Credit: Michael Caswell