One of my biggest regrets of 2019 (#firstworldproblems) was not taking a friend’s recommendation to see the Black Pumas in New York in September. Less than twenty-four hours later, at a listening post in Rough Trade Brooklyn, I realised the true magnitude of my mistake – for the band’s eponymous debut album is an instant classic. On Friday, however, I made amends by seeing the Black Pumas’ triumphant show at the Islington Assembly Hall, London, and the world is back spinning on its axis again.
It has always been a markontour rule that while it is clearly wrong to assess a person by their looks, and generally an error to judge a book by its cover, it is completely acceptable to buy music on the basis of the album artwork alone. It is an approach that has stood me in good stead from London Calling to the Stone Roses, and is thoroughly vindicated in the case of the Black Pumas, whose cover of prowling felines outlined in a red spotlight oozes confidence and cool.
It is a strange sensation being introduced to the Black Pumas – something like hearing Rodrigues for the first time – because the songs sound simultaneously entirely new and yet tip-of-the-tongue familiar. There’s certainly no questioning the late 1960s / early 1970s soul influences in their music and their name. But the Black Pumas have undeniably created something new and unique out of the influences of the past.
Formed in Austin Texas, I was surprised to learn that the band is really a duo, formed by guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada and joined by singer/song-writer, Eric Burton, who was busking in that most musical of cities (which also boasts one of the world’s great mayors, in Steve Adler) when they met.
On stage in Islington, however, the band were a tight six-piece, dominated by Eric Burton’s vocals and born-to-be-a-front-person presence. Dressed in a jacket that evoked both Thriller-era Michael Jackson and revolutionary chic, Burton commanded the audience so effortlessly that even early on he managed to get a bunch of Brits not just moving, but sashaying to the beat.
Stand-out song of the night was ‘Colors’, a eulogy to a beautiful sky that doubles as a call for unity due to its “My sisters and my brothers” chorus. Starting with a kind of north African guitar riff, the song builds into a soulful, multi-voiced anthem. It was so good on Friday night that I can’t understand why I instead chose ‘Black Moon Rising’ as the Black Pumas’ track on my Festive Fifteen 2019 entry, except that it is also a brilliant song and surely destined for a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack in the future.
With only one album under their belts and all its songs already played, we weren’t sure what the band would do for an encore, when an ecstatic crowd demanded them back on stage. The answer was a magical cover of Tracy Champman’s ‘Fast Car’, with full crowd sing-along, and then a beautiful version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ that almost entirely discarded the melody of the original in order to give it a soulful treatment.
The queue was far too long to buy a t-shirt after the show, but the Black Pumas’ album cover is going to adorn my living room’s Album of the Month picture frame for some time to come. And the moral of this story? If it looks good, it might just sound good and always say “yes” when someone suggests you go and see a band.