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Review: With soul power, Black Pumas bring full-capacity live shows back to Austin

If you’ve wondered if it’s possible to socially distance at a sold-out Stubb’s show: The answer is no, not really. 

Wednesday was a steamy night, with temperatures lingering in the 80s well after the sun went down. And for the first large, full-capacity concert in downtown Austin since March 2020, just a few folks lingered near the very back of the amphitheater, where it was almost possible to maintain a bit of space between strangers. The vast majority of the roughly 2,000 Black Pumas fans — who snagged tickets for the first night of a historic run of five sold-out shows at the largest venue in the Red River Cultural District — packed in shoulder to shoulder, jockeying for a good position to see the red-hot Austin soul band whose stratospheric rise has continued despite the coronavirus pandemic. 

If you’ve wondered whether people would choose to mask up in a crowd, despite recent CDC guidance that allows broad freedoms for fully vaccinated people to face the world uncovered: The answer once again is no.

Eric Burton performs for the crowd at Stubb's on May 26. His band, Black Pumas, sold out a five-night run of shows at the venue. The engagement marks the return of large, full-capacity concerts to the Red River Cultural District.

Beyond the Stubb’s crew working the show and the security team at the door, masks were few and far between. People were clearly ready to trust the scientists who say vaccinated people can resume close contact with other vaccinated human beings outdoors.

If you’ve wondered how long it would take charismatic Pumas singer Eric Burton, a man of the people who has never met a stage barrier he didn’t want to breach, to touch random strangers in the crowd: The answer is one song. 

Since the beginning of the year, the Pumas have logged appearances on the Grammy Awards broadcast, numerous television shows and the Biden/Harris inaugural event, but this was the band’s first night back in front of a full crowd. The emotional weight of the moment was not lost on anyone. 

Eric Burton of Black Pumas meets the fans where they are on May 26 at Stubb's.

“I can’t tell you how special this is,” Burton said while introducing the band after opening with an electrifying unreleased track, “Next to You.”

“I told myself I wasn't gonna cry, man,” he said.  

A few minutes later, he was in the wildly screaming audience, striving, as he always does, to make a personal connection with the people he lifts with his voice. 

And the people were lifted.

After a year of uncertainty, anxiety and grief, a sense of palpable joy and cathartic release radiated from a crowd who, on multiple occasions, broke into wild cheers when the band paused between songs.  

With a fervent belief in the power of love undiminished by a year in lockdown, there was no better band to coax back into the world a group of music fans who have spent a year tethered to their couches. Black Pumas’ catalog is loaded with songs about chasing dreams, embracing love and living to your full potential.

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Burton coaxed the crowd to sway together, as we shook off any downtrodden energy, during “Old Man,” a song that explicitly leans into the power of love, before reminding us that “we got to get it together” on “Know You Better.” The latter is a confessional love song but lifted by the gospel harmonies of backup singers Lauren Cervantes and Angela Miller. As we hopefully approach the aching end of the pandemic, it felt like a broader call for collective healing. Later in the set, on “Touch the Sky,” Burton reminded us to let our souls take flight. 

Adrian Quesada, pictured at front, and Eric Burton did not slow the momentum of Black Pumas over the past year, despite the pandemic.

For his part, Adrian Quesada, the mastermind behind the Pumas’ rich instrumental arrangements, reminded us that he’s also one of the fiercest axe-slingers in a music scene built on the backs of six-string heroes, logging several searing solos throughout the night. 

As the crowd came down from a wild high after Quesada made his guitar sing, then wail, then scream at the end of “Stay Gold,” Burton noted that the night felt like some sort of a beautiful collective dream. 

“It's not going to set in 'til tomorrow for me,” he said. 

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The group is built around the dual powerhouses of Quesada and Burton, but the entire ensemble deserves a shoutout. Keyboard player JaRon Marshall, bassist Brendan Bond and drummer Stephen Bidwell all put in excellent performances, and the soul-stirring harmonies of Cervantes and Miller spin Burton’s vocals into modern-day spirituals.

A Black Pumas show always feels like a revival meeting. On a night that marked an important step forward for a music industry that's struggled as club owners waited for the right moment to reopen, that feeling was amplified. 

The band reminded us to stretch beyond life's “Confines” and delivered a scorching rendition of “October 33” that simmered with passion and regret, before closing the set with an ecstatic version of their hit song “Colors” that included a full-throated sing along. 

The crowd cheered for more. After a few minutes, Burton unexpectedly emerged, acoustic guitar in hand, on the VIP platform in the back of the venue. Reminding us of his humble beginnings as a busker on the Santa Monica Pier, he led the crowd in a magical cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” 

A few minutes later, Burton was back on the main stage, and the band took us out with “Fire.” The song includes the lyric, “If you get tired, use your soul power and you’ll find the way.” 

On a night when Black Pumas used their soul power to bring large-scale live music back to the pandemic-battered Red River Cultural District, that felt just about perfect. 

Deborah Sengupta Stith writes about music and more for the American-Statesman. Email her at dsengupta@statesman.com and follow her on Twitter, @deborific.