Austin psychedelic soul band the Black Pumas are in that joyous, exciting place in an artist’s career: right smack in the middle of the build-up to the band’s blow up, before they become household names, and then can’t go shopping without security. They’ve toured the world and played at various music festivals, including locally at Pickathon in 2018, and most recently Lollapalooza.
“But you know, a lot of people, they don't know about us,” said singer Eric Burton in an interview with the Mercury earlier this year. “So it's like I still feel like a normal guy just walking around and not really having too much attention in a way that is impeding on just doing normal things.”
I spoke to Burton on the phone the day before he and bandmate, guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada, embarked on their headliner tour–for which the Portland dates were eventually pushed back from August to December. Burton was still giddy from throwing the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game in June, one of his proudest moments of the last couple years. The band was also recently honored with three Grammy nominations for their self-titled debut—including Best New Artist, Album of the Year, and for their hit single “Colors,” Record of the Year and Best American Roots Performance. They’ve had their songs placed in Target ads, and they’ve performed on nearly every late night show and major platform imaginable, including the Grammys, NPR’s Tiny Desk, The Tonight Show, and CBS This Morning.
Burton said connecting with people via the band’s live performance is “one of his favorite things to do.” As a person who was initiated into the Black Pumas fandom during their set at Pickathon 2018, and has since also been blessed to see them live a couple other times in Portland, I can say for certain the feeling is mutual. I was in awe and easily sold on them as a band by their electrifying guitar-driven stage presence, vintage soul-inspired sound, and Eric Burton’s tireless, soul-drenched vocals. Raised by his musician uncle, Burton has all kinds of rituals when it comes to preserving and taking care of his voice: reading Stanislavski’s Singing for the Stars, swearing by pre-show warm-ups, and drinking something hot with honey in it.
For so long the band toured with just a couple singles out, like “Black Moon Rising,” “Fire,” “Colors,” and “OCT 33.” Now, for the first time the band is touring in support of their debut full-length album, after having the venture put off—and put off again—due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even without the extra editions, the self-titled album is everything their live audience could have prayed for. It’s pretty much continuous highlights, no skips, and stand-out tracks are debatable. My personal favorites are every single version of “Colors” that exists, “Stay Gold,” “Touch the Sky,” and “Know You Better.” Some other favorites are on the Deluxe and the Expanded Deluxe Edition which include some of their best live recordings, as well as impeccable covers like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” and drastically updating and smoothing out proto-punk band Death’s poignant “Politicians In My Eyes,” peaking with Burton’s guttural soul howl.
Noting that Black Pumas’ music sounds both like old soul and also like nothing else audiences have heard, Burton attributed the feeling sonically to Adrian Cassada, and to the fact that he and Cassada are about 10 years apart in age.
“I think that Adrian came to the table with a lot of the nods to the old school golden age of soul music integrated with hip-hop, with how long he's been a fan of that music,” he said. “Me, I had never sang on an album or any time the way that I sing on the recordings of this project… I had to do my research and being a younger person, liking different things, I think also came through, you know, on a level that provided some freshness, and some newness to what is familiar.”
Burton added that he studied Al Green's voice, as well as Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.
“I think that those vocal tonalities are integrated with where I come from as a songwriter listening to people like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and the Beatles, and different American songwriters while also interjecting my own personality.”
Burton told me that when the Black Pumas first started, Quesada told him, “‘I’ve always kind of wanted to be a guitarist in a soul band.’”
“I think we just came to the conclusion that we will just continue to work together until it's not fun anymore,” Burton added. “So far, the songs and the opportunities continue to compound.”
During their Pickathon set, I remember a good friend of mine (and die-hard Beatles fan) who was there watching heard the Pumas’ cover of the Beatles classic “Eleanor Rigby,” and said it “blew his fucking mind”—even though he doesn’t normally like covers, especially ones attempting to tackle Beatles’ songs. Burton said there are definitely some covers on their new tour’s setlist.
Before the Black Pumas took off, Burton said he spent time close to the ground here in Portland, busking as a solo artist and getting to know the city’s vibe and culture.
“I think Portland is wild in the coolest way possible, man. I had such a good time there,” he said. “I think the best time that I had there—though I’ve played at respectable places—my favorite time was when I was busking.”
The Pumas will play two shows at the Roseland next week.
“It's been put off long enough,” Burton said back in summer—before the Portland shows were put off yet again. “For an entire year…. On one end we've missed being connected with the people in a live setting, and have hurt as a band and as artists who do that for a living, and then on the other hand, we've had some time to re-collect ourselves and make more music, start different ideas and now that we're out again, we have a some momentum going into the second album as well. So, in some ways, the pandemic elevated us, professionally and creatively.”
The Black Pumas are performing December 8 and 9 at the Roseland Theater. Both shows are sold out, but resale tickets start at $50.