Devout fans of The Black Pumas (Eric Burton, guitar/vocals; and Adrian Quesada, guitar/producer) were presented with the unwelcome news in August 2022 that their beloved band was “press[ing] pause” and canceling the remainder of its tour, sparking rumors that the Pumas were at risk of extinction. The news (or lack thereof) over the ensuing months did little to quell those rumors. In July 2023, however, the band posted an image of a hard drive to social media that was simply labeled – “Pumas II.” It was a simultaneously cryptic but clear message that the Pumas were back on the prowl.
The resulting album – Chronicles of a Diamond – arrived in October of last year and finds the band stronger following its brief hibernation, stretching the boundaries of the modern soul sound created on its self-titled debut without ever changing the identity of the band itself. It is a superb sophomore effort that, to repurpose the lyrics from the debut single and lead track “More Than a Love Song,” contain a collection of “sweet soul music” that will “reignite your soul.”
But the Pumas are more than what you hear on the album. If the album is the spark for reigniting the soul, it is the band’s live performance that intensifies the fire burning within it. Led by Burton, the Pumas’ charismatic and energetic frontman, the performances take on his persona: a propulsive force that drives the music from the first note until the last, leaving fans as emotionally drenched as Burton himself.
The Pumas’ recent shows in Chicago were no different. Playing three sold-out shows at the former Morton Salt facility in Chicago, now a music venue known as The Salt Shed, the Pumas began each show in ominous but amazing fashion before any member took the stage. As the venue lights went down, an intro began playing that highlighted the gigantic backdrop of the Chronicles of a Diamond album cover. But this was no ordinary backdrop. Designed by Marc Janowitz (E26 Design), programmed by Meagan Metcalf and expertly directed by touring Lighting Director Alyssa Milione, the teeth and eyes of the backdrop consisted of real glass crystals set in front of a lightbox but behind a hand-painted scrim copy of the printed teeth and eyes. The result was not only theater magic but a signal to the crowd that the Pumas, bared teeth and all, were about to pounce.
And pounce they did, playing an electrifying 17-song set each night that fittingly kicked off with “Fire” from the debut album and continued burning brightly for the rest of the evening which in no small part was due to Burton. He is not only the consummate frontman – commanding the stage and interacting with the crowd, but also the perfect foil to the calm, cool and collected Quesada.
Yet nothing about Burton could have prepared the crowd for what happened on night 3 when during “More Than a Love Song” Burton asked the crowd, like Moses parting the Red Sea, to clear space for him. He then proceeded to leap from the stage, across the approximately three-foot expanse of the photo/security pit and over the metal barrier where he landed amongst the adoring fans and, remarkably, continued singing as he wound his way back to the stage. A definite, if not unbelievable, highlight of the Pumas’ residency, but not one that overshadowed the greatest achievement of all: the shows themselves.
For over 90 minutes each night, the Pumas delighted the crowd with a high-octane collection of songs from their debut album, such as “Know You Better,” “Black Moon Rising,” “Confines,” “Oct 33,” and the band’s biggest hit, “Colors,” to close out the main set. With the exception of “Hello” and “Sauvignon,” the former of which was only played on night 1 and the latter of which was played on nights 2 and 3, the remainder of the main set contained every other song from Chronicles, each of which fit seamlessly between the band’s biggest hits. For the encore, Burton surprised a few unsuspecting fans in the balcony to play a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” before closing out the evening on the main stage with “Rock and Roll” from Chronicles.
The Black Pumas are a “must-see” live act, particularly for those who need to reignite their soul. For more information on Chronicles of a Diamond and upcoming tour dates, check out the band’s website.
All images: © Derek Smith / High Voltage Concert Photography for American Blues Scene