Burnt Sugar can be many things: lush, hypnotically psychedelic 50-piece avant garde orchestra, blazing funk band, and also a combination of the two. Tonight at Bryant Park they were all three. The best songs of the night came at the end of the show, as bandleader/guitarist/conductor Greg Tate essentially mixed them live – but without a laptop. He did it the old-fashioned way, signaling band members in a split second for solos and group input, the horns, keyboards,vocalists or rhythm section taking a turn, sometimes for several bars, sometimes as other elements would enter the picture, sometimes leaving, sometimes taking over centerstage. The vocalists would play off each other, or off the beat, in a completely different time signature. The night’s final song, a trancey one-chord vamp on an oldschool disco beat had the keyboardist playing artful variations on a rapidfire Sly Stone-style clavinova riff, the three-piece horn section and the three singers adding color, then carrying it solo for a bar or two before Tate would signal a change. That neither he nor the audience knew what was coming, or precisely how the other musicians would react, made it absolutely fascinating to watch. In fact, if Tate really wants to elevate the suspense factor, he could do like a big league baseball coach and instead of signaling to the band with his baton, he could tweak his nose or hike up his trousers, his back to the crowd, so they’d have no clue that he’d just called for yet another unexpected trick ending.
A tantalizingly brief Melvin Van Peebles cameo, with the Burnt Sugar members who also make up his funk band Laxative, was another unexpected treat. Van Peebles’ filmmaking may have overshadowed his music, but give him a microphone and he becomes one of the funniest men alive, just as he was when he was making albums like What the Fuck You Mean I Can’t Sing? back in the early 70s. Back then he did his best to sound like a dirty old man: now in his seventies, he no longer has to try as hard. His lyrics fall somewhere between Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolomite, Lee “Scratch” Perry and old dozens rhymes like Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law.
After riffing on the idea for one verse after another, Van Peebles asked the crowd, “Is there something you don’t understand about how Lillie did the Zampoogie whenever I pulled her coattail?” The sleepy afterwork crowd didn’t respond as boisterously to his absurdly repetitive tale of post-coitus dance fever as if this had been at say, BAM Cafe (he’s playing there on October 1 with the band), but either way it was impossible not to laugh. Another number gently but vividly made fun of a country bumpkin who wants to get just thisfar away from where he is right now. But Van Peebles’ music, like his movies, also has a fiercely perceptive social awareness, exemplified by a brief conscious funk medley. And then it was back to more Burnt Sugar.
The show took awhile to get going, possibly because of technical difficulties, although the band was obviously working overtime to overcome them, through a series of originals that blended hip-hop, Art Ensemble of Chicago-style mass improvisation and metallic funk. Then they reinvented a small handful of Bowie songs, including a snarling bluesmetal version of Fame, and found the definitive inner soul of Breaking Glass: Bowie deserves as much credit for writing songs that fit the idiom as much as this band does for taking that idiom to the next level. Surprisingly, Rock N Roll Suicide turned out to be a tuneout for the crowd, even as singer Lisala pulled out all the stops, wailing “You’re not alone!” over and over, further and further up the scale (although this pyrotechnic version still couldn’t beat Sarah Mucho’s incendiary cover).