To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, creative leader/activist/artist Reggie Prim shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performance by Burnt Sugar–The Arkestra Chamber. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Burnt Sugar, a 17-member Afrocentric jazz/funk collective, electrified the standing-room-only crowd at the Walker Saturday night. Any World That I’m Welcome To: The Steely Dan Conductions was an assertive and funky re-do of the music of this American band that borrowed heavily from jazz, rock, funk, R&B, and pop. At the end of a nearly two-hour performance the audience was on its feet demanding more. I found myself running down the aisle of the staid McGuire Theater and dancing for nearly half an hour onstage with my friends.
A focused and energetic funk “Arkestra” taking on Walter Becker and Donald Fagan’s complex and beloved repertoire produced a delightful tension between recognition and discovery. The band mined the collection for a variety of emotional effects, veering from reverential to parody. All of it was expertly performed. The rhythm section was expertly coordinated throughout the complex songs. Many of the performances were so saucy and knowing that I couldn’t help laughing out loud.
I caught sight of Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior performing arts curator, looking like he was having the time of his life. And frankly, I think he was. I was definitely experiencing one of the most memorable concerts in an age. My friend and I were enjoying ourselves loudly from the first moments. A number of eyebrows in the rows ahead of us seemed raised. I know that loud clapping, neck bobbing, and doing the Funky Sit-Down are not expected behavior at a Walker show. All I can say is that I wasn’t the only person bustin’ a move.
The band was in a word: hot. It was as if seventeen attractive people that I instantly wanted to be my friends all came out on stage together. I was forced to focus. First on Mazz Swift, the violinist and vocalist—a tall, arresting-looking woman dressed in all black with braids down to her hips playing a black electric V-shaped violin. And later, on drummer LaFrae Sci, whose intensity and metronomic precision never wavered over nearly two hours. The band is stocked with attractive and unique-looking characters who are all masters of their instruments. Of particular note for me was the vocal work of Karma Mayet and Lewis “Flip” Barnes on trumpet.
Vernon Reid conducted the band with intensity and laser focus. He also playfully pulled the audience in, encouraging singing and clapping. The party atmosphere belied a more serious artistic mission which was to, according to Reid, “Call Steely Dan out.”
“Calling a person out” is slang for surfacing someone’s hidden intentions, or challenging them to an artistic duel such as in street dancing, beat boxing, and Hip Hop. Throughout the show there was a clear sense that Vernon Reid and Co. were saying “Gimme that!” to Becker and Fagan and clearly intent on surfacing the signifiers of race and Black culture that were perhaps not so obvious in the original recordings.
The songs were accompanied by slides that showed images of cultural figures and artists from the late ’70’s and ’80’s that were “obliquely referential” to the songs. The slides also served as lighthearted interrogators of the often-coded racial signifiers in the lyrics. However, the effect was never heavy handed and only enhanced the intense pleasure of witnessing Burnt Sugar muscle in on a great American songbook.