Black Pumas: 'Let's come together with all we have'
The final Thursday of Black Pumas’ residency at C-Boys falls on a balmy night in April. As the band prepares to take the stage, the air inside the club feels heavy, thick. The weekly rock ‘n’ soul revue led by singer Eric Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada started in February and overnight it became the hottest party in town. This is the show your music nerd friend who knows what’s up said you have to check out.
Now the club’s at capacity and the sound aficionados who pack the front have to get comfortable with each other real quick. This isn’t a problem. As Burton leans into the first smouldering love song, he exhorts the crowd to “Let it all out” with an earnestness so real, they willingly comply.
Black Pumas is the Austin 360 Artist of the Month for May, 2018. They performed "Know You Better" live in the studio of The Austin American-Statesman headquarters.
The five-piece band unwinds a steamy set loaded with chunky grooves — grimy breakbeats embellished with Quesada’s psychedelic wanderings. Burton’s voice rides on top, sliding smoothly from a silky falsetto to a throaty growl. The vibe in the room is somewhere between boozy weekend kickoff bash and revival meeting.
At one point near the end of the set, Burton reminds the crowd once more to let loose. “It’s not about perfection, it’s about getting you to see the love,” he says. Then the band launches into an extended cover of the Beatles’ classic “Eleanor Rigby” that unfurls as an epic requiem for “all the lonely people.” It’s a beacon to wayward souls, an invitation to come together.
In an age of widespread despair, Black Pumas make rock songs feel like prayers.
The strong spiritual underpinning of the work is not accidental. Like most great soul singers, 27-year-old Eric Burton came up in the church.
“My mom and my grandma, they encouraged me to get into the choir at a young age,” he says. An observant young man, he was struck by the way spirituals affected congregants. The word of the Lord rendered in song answered a primordial yearning. It became a balm for aching souls.
“I thought that it was really awesome to see how people were moved by the human voice and how people were moved by trying to seek something greater than themselves,” he says.
Eric Burton of Black Pumas performs at C-Boys. Burton says he discovered the power of music to move people as a young man singing in church choir. Stephen Spillman/For American-Statesman
With his own work, he strives to create that same visceral connection. “I’m trying to do something that is going to move me so deeply that it doesn’t really matter what I’m thinking about externally,” he says. He wants to make music that is simple and honest. Songs straight from the heart.
Burton arrived in Austin in late 2015, at the end of a vagabond journey that began in his home state of California. The summer before, while living with his mother in Los Angeles, he linked up with a pair of like-minded musicians on the beach and formed a busking group. Each morning, he would ride buses across town from Watts, in South Los Angeles, to the Santa Monica pier to sign up for performance slots.
While his cohorts played covers of radio hits, Burton brought his own songs. When the familiar songs drew bigger reactions from the crowds, he channeled his frustration into motivation.
“As a songwriter I kind of used that challenge competitively to see what I could do to get people’s attention,” he says.
It was an idyllic life. They were making roughly $200-$300 each daily, and in their downtime between sets, Burton and his crew played beach volleyball. Days bled into other days and after a few months, he was ready for a change. The group decided to go on a busking tour.
“We would go to every big city that we would pass and we would busk on the street until we had enough money to go to the next city,” he says.
They crashed with friends and family and in state parks. The tour wound up and down the West Coast and through the deserts of New Mexico. Eventually, they landed in Austin. While wanderlust still called to his compadres, Burton fell in love, with a woman, with the city. He decided to settle down.
“I was really taken by how the people here were receptive to what I had going on,” he says. “I decided to continue to develop as an artist here.”
Adrian Quesada wrote the instrumentals for the first Black Pumas songs. A mutual friend connected him to Eric Burton to help finish the songs. Stephen Spillman/For American-Statesman
Not long after Burton arrived in Austin, Grammy Award-winning guitarist and producer Adrian Quesada found himself sitting on a set of songs, soulful grooves with a hip-hop sensibility, that came to him out of the ether. “(The instrumentals), what became the beginning of the Black Pumas stuff, was all done in a couple of single sittings, which is rare for me,” he says.
He didn’t share the songs with anyone, but began to “put a word out to the universe, just the people we know” that he was looking for a writing partner to help finish them. A mutual friend connected him with Burton, who dropped by the studio one night.
“First note he sang here I was like ‘Oh (expletive) yeah. That’s it. Holy (expletive),’” he says.
For roughly a year, the two began a quiet collaboration. Burton added lyrics to the material Quesada brought to the table and Quesada reworked some of Burton’s old songs for a full band arrangement.
The end result is powerful: a set of songs with a lineage that can be traced back to the Motown era of early soul that maintain the urgency of the current moment.
“One thing that somebody said one time to me that has always stayed in the back of my head is, ‘You can’t pretend that hip-hop didn’t happen,’” Quesada says. “I can’t bring myself to do music trying to act like it’s from the ’60s. You’re ignoring this whole other huge musical movement.”
“There’s a juxtaposition there,” Burton says. “You have the classic soul. Then you have the rebellious aspect of like the boom bap, hip-hop rhythms and beats.”
The collaboration evolved quickly. They had two songs, then three, then 10. They could have kept going, but “we decided this is too good to not show people,” Quesada says.
They added a few covers to flesh out an hour long set. Quesada pulled in bassist Joe Sokolik and drummer Stephen Bidwell from Hard Proof, vocalist Angela Miller, and keyboardist Spencer Garland to put together a band and booked the C-Boys residency. With less than two weeks of rehearsal before the first performance, they didn’t send a news release and barely shared the show flier, instead plotting a quiet debut.
“I remember telling Celeste, my wife, ‘Like, don’t come to the first gig. Give us a couple of gigs to get good,’” Quesada says.
She didn’t listen. Neither did Quesada and Burton’s friends. Quesada estimates about half of the crowd that night were fellow musicians.
“They’re the worst (expletive) people to play to because they just (stand there) arms crossed and they’re staring at you,” he says with a laugh. But there was no hostility that night. Instead, the crowd threw down.
“I remember looking around and thinking like, ‘Oh damn they’re into it,” Quesada says.
Adrian Quesada and Eric Burton say unity is a big theme for the project. “Let’s come together with all we have,” Burton says. Stephen Spillman/For American-Statesman
With some of the top musicians in town jazzed about the project, buzz spread quickly. They started the residency the second week in February. By early March, they were official South by Southwest showcasing artists and local NPR outlet KUTX had pegged them as “ones to watch.”
One night Gary Clark Jr. dropped by after a session at Arlyn Studios down the street. Word on the street was “Yo, you’ve got to get out and see this guy,” Burton remembers him saying.
“It was really humbling to realize that it was something that people were really paying attention to and respecting for what it was,” he says.
By the final night of the residency, on April 5, the club was at capacity and C-Boys staffers told the band there were between 50 and 100 people waiting to get in when they opened the doors. Now, with the residency over, they’re fielding offers for festivals and making plans to tour outside Austin, while still scrambling to release their debut album.
It’s not surprising that the music has such a strong resonance. At a moment when the larger political and social climate is rank with divisiveness and strife, Black Pumas call for unity. Beyond the music, they manifest a version of the American dream within their own roster.
“We’re male, female, black, white, Latino, everything on stage and it’s not a big deal. … I almost feel like that, in this day and age, speaks volumes,” Quesada says.
“Some of the songs … encourage us to take a break from our everyday struggles and differences and realize that we’re on this planet in the middle of nowhere. We’re floating on. We’re evolving … and we’re a lot smaller than we try to place ourselves,” Burton says.
“For me, it’s important to speak directly through to someone’s soul to remind them that we’re here together and we’re all the same. We’re all in the same boat.”
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ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Black Pumas