Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber’s closing number was a burning medley of “Let’s Dance” and “Fame,” a quick glimpse of the tribute show they did to David Bowie a few years ago. On the other side of the GE Theatre (and I do mean the other side), the audience sat firmly in their seats. It wasn’t that they weren’t enjoying themselves – far from it! It’s just that after the two-set assault of this towering juggernaut, the crowd’s collective brain had pretty much shorted out.
To give you some perspective, we’re talking a ten-piece group with a leader (former Village Voice columnist Greg Tate) who also plays rhythm guitar when he isn’t conducting the band – and when he wasn’t conducting, the job was ably handled by either vocalist Mikel Banks, violinist Mazz Swift or keyboardist Bruce Mack. On one side of the stage was a two-person reed section that handled spaced-out jazz and down-and-dirty funk with equal dexterity, while the other side was held down by a guitarist whose solo lines were nearly as blinding as his wardrobe choices. What we have here is the musical equivalent of a 700-pound gorilla: It does whatever it sets out to do, and accomplishes it with the kind of crushing power normally associated with nuclear submarines and fire-breathing dinosaurs.
The proceedings started with a rising vocalese by Banks, Swift, Mack, and primary vocalist Abby Dobson; Tate shaped it, built it up, and then triggered a blistering groove by the rest of the band. Swift and guitarist Andre Lassalle traded solo blasts while Mack filled in behind and Tate incited multi-instrumentalist V. Jeffery Smith and bari-sax queen Moist Paula Henderson to bring it a little harder. Banks had his own sax, a toy-looking thing dubbed the “freak-a-phone” that made amazing sounds not found in nature. The only way Jared Micheal Nickerson’s bass could have been fatter is if it took cheese intravenously, and drummer LaFrae Sci watched Tate’s every move as she laid down a hellacious beat, her smiling expression clearly saying, “Come on, man! Is that all you got?!”
The first set mixed pieces from Burnt Sugar’s new disc “All Y’all Needs That Negrocity” with searing covers of Bowie and James Brown. Smith’s tenor sax was closer to Maceo Parker then Andy Mackay on “Rebel Rebel”, but his fills soon attained an appropriate level of insanity as Banks sold the lyric perfectly and Tate steered the song’s closing in a ska/funk direction. Smith and Henderson combined to give Swift’s take on Brown’s “Rock Me Again & Again” some serious muscle, and the three-part harmony Swift made with Banks and Dobson was truly galvanizing. Dobson’s got the kind of vocal range you associate with opera singers, and she clearly communicated the uneasiness of the protagonist in “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango).”
Given the dancing feeling of the first set, you’d figure Burnt Sugar would crank that up a notch in the second set and fill the club-like floor Proctors had set up. The thing is, though, Tate and the group shifted the paradigm by sliding into a dizzying, multi-faceted space jam that took you right back to the glory days of jazz fusion: The base was Miles Davis, but the overall product was closer to On the Corner than Bitches Brew. Sci still kept a tight beat, but Swift and Lassalle were doing business in a completely different dimension. Mack’s keyboard lines followed them down the wormhole, and Bank’s contributions on freak-a-phone made impossible to tell if those incredible sounds were coming from Lassalle, Banks, or some tripped-out Theremin player on Alpha Centauri. 45 minutes of this kind of treatment and it’s no wonder the audience was fused to the seats.
Proctors is known primarily for the national stage shows it brings to this area, and this night was no exception: The evening performance of “Shrek the Musical” was letting out as I made my way to the parking lot. Fortunately, Proctors management is using the facility’s multiple venues to present artists that go beyond their usual fare. The three-show series “Party Horns NYC” will feature performances by Brooklyn Qaali Party and Dead Cat Bounce, but those bands will have to work like demons to equal the seismic impact of Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber.
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “The second set was more abstract and challenging as Burnt Sugar disassembled and slammed together shards of songs by Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. An hour-long suite started with noisy noodling before forming a vamp via a bristling cacophony. They stayed pretty far outside for that whole explosive exploration and came to earth only in a medley of James Brown’s ‘There Was a Time’ with David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Fame.’ Burnt Sugar’s resourceful recycling of familiar songs had outstanding imagination and easy virtuosity that belied their part-time status. They were less derivative than ingenious and skilled at every position.”