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Re-creators of groovy, psychedelic soul

The Black Pumas are reviving the funky soul of the 1970s, but their music is like an old cocktail with a new twist

Eric Burton of Black Pumas during a concert in Berlin in February 2020.
Eric Burton of Black Pumas during a concert in Berlin in February 2020. (Getty Images)

There is a theory that the musical genre commonly known as “psychedelic soul” or “psychedelic funk” owes its origins to Jimi Hendrix. Before his premature death in 1970 at the age of 27, Hendrix evolved a singular style of playing the electric guitar that took blues, rock ‘n’ roll and R&B and, through distortions, amplifications and other noisy sounds that may have been hitherto considered unpleasant, melded them into what became known as his brand of psychedelic rock.

Hendrix’s use of wah-wah pedals, fuzz and electronic feedback, which has since influenced generations of contemporary musicians, also began influencing black American soul and R&B musicians of the mid- and late 1960s. Genres such as psychedelic soul and funk emerged as musicians, including those in Motown, began adding psychedelic effects to traditional forms of R&B and soul. It was also a period when the use of mind-altering drugs such as marijuana and LSD became popular, so the psychedelic turn that soul and R&B took was complemented by this trend—both among those who created the music and those who listened to it.

Among the early acts were bands such as Sly and the Family Stone, The Temptations, and The Supremes. The psychedelic aspect also surfaced in recordings by singers such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Although psychedelic soul, R&B and funk continued through the 1970s, evolving into disco and other dance-focused music, the genre didn’t last too long. In recent years, though, there has been a revival.

Today we have several new proponents, prominent among them a psychedelic soul band called Black Pumas from Austin, Texas. The Pumas are a duo—singer Eric Burton and guitarist and producer Adrian Quesada. Last year, they were nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist.

The band has just one full-length, eponymously titled, album with 10 songs but they are already creating ripples. Quesada, in his early 40s, is the musical brain, creating intricate soundscapes. Burton, 31, has wistful, shimmering but also pleasant-sounding vocals with a retro feel. Together, they offer psychedelic soul with a modern-day nuance. For the album, the duo enlisted other musicians too, including drummers, bassists, string and saxophone players, and keyboardists.

The album’s opening song, Black Moon Rising, is one of their best tracks. It starts with a drum roll before Burton’s soft vocals ease in (I want you to be my woman, babe/ Every time you get dressed in black/ You give a grown man a heart attack) and glide over the music, effortlessly and in perfect sync. Another track, Colors, opens with a delicately hewn guitar riff before morphing into a deeply bass-lined funky groovy tune with Burton’s vocals, aided and harmonised by backup singers. In Oct 33, the string arrangements set the stage for a ballad-like song that is almost a throwback to 1970s-era soul.

Halfway through Oct 33, the lead guitar and bass lines lend a psychedelic street cred that gives a modern touch. That’s what makes this band special: They are able to make soul music that is redolent of the genre’s heady peak years but is also very relevant in this age.

The story of how Quesada and Burton met is interesting. Quesada, it is said, had been creating and laying down the instrumentals for the songs and was looking for a singer. Friends recommended Burton, who was then busking on Austin’s streets. As it happens, the first time Quesada heard Burton was when he sang for him on the phone. In an interview with CBS news, Quesada said he immediately knew this was “the guy” he needed. They recorded their first song, Black Moon Rising—and there was no looking back.

Both already had years of experience. Quesada had played and collaborated with the Latin collective Grupo Fantasma and others in the Austin area and Burton had been a hard-working, permit-carrying busker for many years.

The two complement each other perfectly. Burton’s vocals are those of a seasoned soul singer, flexible and easy. And Quesada’s composition, guitar-playing and arrangements are a perfectly woven soundscape over which they float smoothly. And, despite all the arrangements and intricacy of the soundscape, the album is also an intimate one, best listened to in solitude, preferably on headphones.

Their tunes can be reminiscent of soul greats but with this album, they have already proven they could be the front-runners in psychedelic soul’s ongoing revival.

The Lounge list

Five tracks from Black Pumas to bookend your week:

1. ‘Black Moon Rising’

2. ‘Colors’

3. ‘Oct 33’

4. ‘Fire’

5. ‘Black Cat’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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