Sunday, February 28, 2016

Getting funky with Burnt Sugar — and paying homage to David Bowie

"At one point I turned around and said: 'Hey David, did I make this song too funky?' He looked at me and said: 'No darling, is there such a thing?' I love that; it’s the best answer he could have given and I use it every time I can." 
— Nile Rodgers about his arrangement of "China Girl" for David Bowie's LET'S DANCE album

CLEVELAND — David would have approved.

The Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber brought the funk and love to their David Bowie tribute set Saturday at the Music Box Supper Club.

The uber-talented New York-based band shared a ton of energy, their killer chops and pipes and certainly a passion for Bowie's music in a 10-song tribute set. Ten songs doesn't sound like a lot, but Burnt Sugar made the most of each tune by featuring skilled instrumental solos.

The Sly and the Family Stone/Tower of Power-style ensemble featured three vocalists, Mikel Banks, Julie Brown and Shelley Nicole (the two women,  Brown and Nicole, nailed it, bring the house to its feet with passionate performances when they sang lead on"Rock-n-Roll Suicide" and "Heroes"), two guitarists (Asim Barnes and Ben Tyree), bassist, Jared Michael Nickerson, keyboardist Leon Greunbaum and drummer Chris Eddleton.

Talking shop with V. Jeffrey Smith,  one of the Burnt Sugar
saxophonists, who is holding a soprano sax,
during the break between sets.
But let's not forget the super-tight horn section — one that would make the Borneo Horns (Bowie's three-piece saxophone group in the 1980s) and Earth, Wind & Fire proud. There was tenor saxophonist V. Jeffrey Smith, baritone saxophonist Paula Henderson (aka "Moist Paula — what a name!), trumpeter Lewis F. Barnes and trombonist John Williams II. The sax players had a fat sound and each of the talented instrumentalists had multiple chances to shine during solos in the musical breakdowns.

It's obvious the band and lead singer love Bowie's music. Equally plain is that the performers enjoy each other and what they do.

Singer Mikel Banks shared how he often saw Bowie at Barnes & Noble in New York.

"You could tell what kind of cat he was by the way he held his daughter's hand and the look he had in his eyes," he said.

During a break between sets, I talked to the trumpeter, tenor saxophonist, lead guitarist and all three singers. Banks said again whenever he saw Bowie he was always unassuming and polite.

The band couldn't have been nicer and more appreciative. The band members aren't blowing smoke when they it means a lot to hear fans' feedback.

Bowieheads unite!
Check out the "screwed-down hairdo" of Burnt Sugar's
Mikel Banks — a fitting homage to Ziggy Stardust.
Let me tell you how great these musicians are; without being asked, the trumpeter brought the tenor saxophonist into the hallway after I told him I too play (or at this point, played) sax. And the lead guitarist and singer didn't even flinch when my date, Rebecca Hobson, unexpectedly grabbed them in a big hug.

Saturday's Bowie tribute was yet another part in what I've started calling the healthy grief I've had over losing my all-time favorite performer. It was a pure pleasure to hear Burnt Sugar passionately pay tribute to the Thin White Duke's eclectic music catalog, yet put a different take on the songs while still staying true to their spirit.

Banks has a strong voice and was up to the task of interpreting Bowie's tunes and handling his deceptively challenging vocal range. His baritone is a good match for the Thin White Duke's.

Burnt Sugar opened its tribute set with an instrumental version of "Sound + Vision." That was when this lifelong Bowiehead knew this 12-piece band was more than up to the task of performing my main man's music.

The fusion-funk band was at its best handling groove-heavy tunes such as "Breaking Glass" and "Fame." I was particularly pleased to hear Burnt Sugar include "Breaking Glass," as it's one of my favorite Bowie tunes and the group rock out to "Moonage Daydream."

Bowie would have approved of Burnt Sugar's renditions of "Breaking Glass" "Fame," as it always seemed he tried to make "Fame" — which already is funky-heavy disco — even funkier than his last tour. Don't take my word for it; look up Burnt Sugar's March 10, 2011 performance of "Breaking Glass" in New York on YouTube.

Selfie time with this sweetie, Rebecca Hobson
As I mentioned, Brown and Nicole killed it Saturday singing lead on "Heroes," which was followed by "Rock-n-Roll Suicide." They also would have made long-time Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey proud when they sang the late Freddy Mercury's part in the Queen-Bowie hit "Under Pressure."

Another stand-out performance was the guitarist's shredding yet melodic solo in "Moonage Daydream."

Many of the songs were given the Burnt Sugar twist, particularly the instrumental breakdown in "Ziggy Stardust."

"Heroes" was more upbeat than Bowie's romantic ballad studio or live versions, but Brown and the band built it to the same, appropriately chilling climax. While one fan told me he thought Burnt Sugar "got it wrong," I couldn't disagree any stronger. Their version of "Heroes" is a life-affirming anthem, pretty much how Bowie handled it, especially in the latter part of his career.

"Rock-n-Roll Suicide" had a gospel feel. Nicole put an amazing amount of fire and passion into the ZIGGY STARDUST album closer that also served as the finale during Bowie's 1972 through '74 tours. In fact, if cigarette lighters had been allowed in the Music Box, many people would have lit them up. And I wouldn't have been surprised if Burnt Sugar could have gotten a healthy good-will offering if someone had passed around a collection plate!

Burnt Sugar do their thing in this photo collage by Michael Cannon posted on the Facebook
fan page of Burnt Sugar baritone saxophonist
Paula Henderson, who goes by the ultra-cool name of "Moist Paula" on FB.
All that aside, I had myself a great "moment" listening to "Rock-n-Roll Suicide" (as I told Nicole) — the only song Burnt Sugar played that I've never had a chance to hear Bowie do live.

(Go here for my reflection on Bowie always bringing his A-game to the six shows I saw. For further Cary's Comics Craze tributes about David Bowie, go here and you can find my six-part "Best of Bowie" tribute series here.)

The second set featured four Burnt Sugar originals and a tune dedicated to actor Melvin Van Peebles, best known for the 1971 film "Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song." The second song in the set was Bowie's "Fashion" (always in my top-three of Bowie's  and Burnt Sugar closed the show with a get-on-your-feet-and-boogie version of "Let's Dance." (Again, check YouTube for the band's March 10, 2011 performance at the Lincoln Center in New York.)

As Banks says, "You've gotta do what the song says." And we did, capping off a fun evening.

Grade: A

Just like the rest of the band, trumpeter Lewis F. Barnes
couldn't have been more gracious as he talked with me
and other fans during a break between sets.
Before I forget, Rebecca and I had a wonderful time chatting, dancing and singing with our table mates: Mark and Kay, Mike and Kim. And I can't forget our delightful waitress, Britney/Brittany. Thanks to all of you and Burnt Sugar for making Saturday an unforgettable night!

David Bowie tribute set list:
Sound + Vision (instrumental)
Rebel Rebel
Breaking Glass
Moonage Daydream
Under Pressure
Ziggy Stardust
Rock-n-Roll Suicide
Modern Love

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