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Friday, August 26, 2016

Concert Review: Cherry Moon Rising

Burnt Sugar Arkestra throws a Parade at Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Members of Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber paint Lincoln Center purple.
Photo anonymous, from the group's Facebook page. © 2016 Burnt Sugar Arkestra.
It was a wake, a gospel revival, and a celebration of the life of an American musical genius. Last night, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber played a free concert in the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, with all sixteen musicians and singers delivering a smoking and soulful tribute to one Prince Rogers Nelson, the Minneapolis singer, songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist whose death earlier this year rocked an already reeling and shuddering world.



Defining Prince's enormous creative output is like nailing purple Jell-O to a wall. Burnt Sugar is just as hard to nail down, a flexable and fluid entity whose membership has included luminaries like Vernon Reid and former Miles Davis sideman Pete Cosey. Inspired loosely by Miles' early electric period, the band/collective led by Greg Tate features a loose and improvisatory approach. Here, they employed a four-piece brass line , three guitars, two-man rhythm section, cello and five singers to recreate the songs from Prince's 1986 album Parade."

Parade is a tricky, paradoxical and ultimately important album in the Prince catalogue. His last record with longtime band The Revolution, it wasthe highly successful soundtrack from the disastrous black-and-white film Under the Cherry Moon. It showed Prince continuing with the neo-psychedelic experiments of the previous Around the World in a Day while striking out in new directions that would ultimately pay off in the following solo masterpiece Sign O' The Times. The record is best remembered for the mega-hit "Kiss", the sound of Prince messing around with a guitar and a drum machine, presumably late at night in his Minneapolis studio Paisley Park.

Prince's music always sounded bold, fresh and experimental, and Burnt Sugar took a luberal approach to reproducing it. Part of that experimentation lay in the instrumental approach: the bebop trumpet of J.S. Williams, the sax trio of (section arranger) V. Jeffrey Smith, Avram Katz and "Moist" Paula Henderson, and the delicate drumming of LaFrae Sci: sometimes ethereal, other times hard and funky. Cellist Marika Hughes did more than lend textural support: her instrument was heard as the funk bass for one song and in an epic solo (played through a wah pedal) on another.

The emotional climax of the Parade tribute was album closer "Sometimes it Snows in April", a poignant adieu given new weight by Prince's early death. Here, singer Queen Esther poured herself into the emotional vocal, backed by her three female counterparts and the slow, weighty throb of the band. Other highlights included a rearrangement of "Kiss" as a pop '80s style reggae that still had all the energy of the original and a tumultuous "Anotherloverholeinyourhead", the song that finally persuaded the seated Lincoln Center audience to get up and shake their posteriors, as his Highness would no doubt have wanted.

The set, curated by Mr. Tate, was spiced with later hits from the huge Prince catalogue. "Sexy M.F." was delivered with a playful parental warning because of the lyrics. It became a tumultuous jam featuring a burlesque dancer who started costumed in Prince's "cloud" suit from the video for "Raspberry Beret" and quickly got into the swinging, brass heavy sex groove of the tune. "Cream" was reworked too, sounding more like the original "Sexy M.F.", which makes sense at the two songs come from the same period. The newest cut was "Guitar" (from the 2007 album Planet Earth, a thunderous workout featuring all three axe-men and a riotous and very funny vocal from Mikel Banks.

Making songs your own while simultaneously paying tribute is a difficult balancing act. And yet, Burnt Sugar succeeding in recasting the songs from Parade in their own image, offering radical reinventions that were at once respectful of the works' original spirit while being fresh, funky and spontaneous. The album was played in its entirety (though not in order) climaxing with "Mountains", a minor hit from the record here given Yes-like cosmic significance, thanks to the lengthy "Ommmmmmm" from the audience designed to call the spirit of the Purple One down to visit. This went directly into "Gonna Bea Beautifu;l Night" from Sign O' The Times, a perfect show closer led by keyboardist Bruce Mack, who stepped out from behind his keys to lead the crowd like a gospel preacher. Here, the gospel was funk, and the ghost of Prince was smiling his secret smile.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.