“It is going to be an amazing, amazing night,” enthused Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh as politically fearless singer Shelley Nicole took the stage there last night with her shapeshifting eight-piece band blaKbüshe. This was the latest of a long series of Lincoln Center performances for the veteran member of kaleidoscopic New York avant funk institution Burnt Sugar.
Dressed in a natty grey suit with gold sleeves and vest, sporting a short mohawk and smacking a tambourine, she and her nine-piece band kicked off the party with BlaK Girls, a slinky latin-flavored funk tune that took a turn into classic 70s disco and then back. Keyboardist Leon Gruenbaum wound it up with a bubbly Rhodes solo. He teamed up with bassist Ganessa James for a thunderstorm low end as the band pounced into Box – as in “You’re not gonna box me!” – a heavy, cinematic funk tune driven by drummer Hiroyuki Matsuura and percusionist Shawn Banks.’
As the show went on, members of the Burnt Sugar family pitched in. One intoned a heartfelt, elegaic poem, For Marjory over a spaciously twinkly Isaac Hayes psych-soul backdrop. From there the group segued into the Harlem River Drive boudoir soul ballad Give It to Me, the bandleader’s impassioned vocals in tandem with harmony singer Ki Ki Hawkins, handing off to T. Jeffrey Smith’s smoky tenor sax and then a moody trumpet solo from Lewis Barnes before a big horn raveup.
Burnt Sugar guitarist Ben Tyree materialized at the back of the stage as Jerome Jordan switched out during that band’s Somebody to Love You, a slow-jam salute to motherhood punctuated by resonant, wee-hours muted trumpet and some snazzy, flickering tremolo-picking. Meanwhile, videos played on the screen overhead – one particularly strong image was a woman being embraced from behind, “Our love is militant” lipsticked on her chest.
A Doobie Brothers cover by any other band would have cleared the room, but you have to give this crew credit for having the chutzpah to do Long Train Running, reinventing it as a brisk soul-clap tune with a growling Jeff Jeudy metal guitar solo midway through. A poetic tribute to Nina Simone was a big hit, followed by the catchy, determined hard-funk anthem I Am American, inspired by the promise of Obama’s first campaign.
“Puerto Rico is not in the news cycle. Let us not forget,” Nicole reminded, explaining that she’d welcome any contributions for a family with two little girls there that she’s helping through hard times. Then she launched into her new pro-choice single Punnany Politixxx – but before she did that she made sure everybody knew what punanny is. Images from recent womens’ marches played overhead as the group built momentum up to a rapidfire dancehall reggae coda featuring Jua Kali.
The night’s best song was the defiantly undulating, organ-fueled latin soul anthem In Your View. They closed with Power on the Floor, its latin-funk message of empowerment inspired by the character Trinity in The Matrix. Fans of this band should also check out the free show on April 13 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space just south of 63rd St. where singer Martha Redbone will collaborate with the similarly eclectic Brooklyn Raga Massive for a mashup of Indian and African-American sounds. Get there early if you’re going.