A September chill invaded the grounds for the final night of the Big Gig, but inside a crowded BMO Harris Pavilion, the temperature was just right thanks the Black Pumas. Between the Austin band's warm vibes and the cool grooves of their throwback soul rock, fans under the pavilion's roof couldn't have asked for a better forecast – or for a better way to end this most unprecedented but satisfying Summerfest.
For those who don't know their story, the duo behind Black Pumas started on very different sides of the music industry: Guitarist Adrian Quesada was a previous Grammy-winner with 15 years under his belt with the Prince-approved Grupo Fantasma, while frontman Eric Burton was a mostly unknown scrapping away and perfecting his livewire performance style busking at the Santa Monica Pier and elsewhere.
Fate, however, brought the two together in Texas – and brought them a surprise jolt of success, earning an unexpected Best New Artist nomination at the Grammys just five short months after their self-titled debut album dropped in 2019. Surrounded by huge names like Lizzo, Lil Nas X and the eventual winner Billie Eilish, they lost – but the following year they'd be back, nominated for three awards this time including Record of the Year ("Colors") and Album of the Year. They lost again but won in the end, taking advantage of the spotlight and becoming the thrilling discovery of the night for many watching at home.
Cut to Saturday night, and Milwaukee finally got to see that discovery in person – and they did not disappoint.
Coming out to a warm reception and an even more warmly lit-stage washed with on-theme multi-colored light – highlighted by the band's circular logo (two black pumas, naturally) in the back, glowing red for the opener – the band got the crowd going with the unreleased "Next to You." Quesada and company quickly established a cozy groovy chill while Burton captivated the audience with his unharried, unpredictable energy – looking relaxed before bursting into staccato and stretchy dance moves and head bangs when the song erupted from soul into rock.
He'd impressively keep that vigor – as well as his heart-packed voice, rawly blending silky soul and scorching falsettos – up the entire 90-minute set. For the next track, "Old Man," Burton ran and bounded back and forth across the stage greeting the crowd before some Temptations-esque choreographed sways and struts, eventually making his first of several forays into the pit to sing along with the people. He managed to combine a joyful fervor on stage, dancing with his backup singers, with a casual conversational energy with the crowd, fine busting out bendy dance moves as well as just milling about right at the front of the audience, selfie-ing and greeting people and limbering up after "More Than a Love Song" and offering up the mic – all while sounding smooth and sharp.
The music matched the frontman's coolly charismatic personality to a T, ably shifting and swaggering from the brassy "I'm Ready" to the sultry slow jam "Know You Better" – complete with a little Isley Brothers' "Between the Sheets" mixed into the arrangement and a fiery ending, igniting into a rocking finish that Burton couldn't help but rip open his vest from the heat of it all. The most memorable tracks of the night, numbers like "Stay Gold" and "OCT 33" would revisit variations of that satisfying formula: calmly burning groove embers that would build before popping and cracking into sparks, catching into a coolly hot blue-flame blaze of combustable soul. The songs roared – and the crowd would too.
After a few of those fresh and fiery setlist selections, Burton and company chilled things out with their smooth and bluesy cover of Bobby "Blue" Band's "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City," the crowd putting in such a solid show on the choruses that the frontman smilingly let them do much of the work. The Black Pumas then wrapped up the main set with the swoony "More Than a Love Song" and the scorching "OCT 33" before finally hitting their breakthrough track, the inescapable "Colors." And even if you're heard the hit plenty of times over the radio or played over a TV commercial, on Saturday night, it sounded fresh out of the package, Burton and the band pushing the pedal on its funky swing just a little extra. It was the kind of performance that reminded you why some omnipresent songs become that way: Because they're really good.
Though encore rigamaroles are the worst, the Black Pumas well-earned theirs from the BMO Harris Pavilion crowd, Burton coming back out for a stripped-down start: a one-man acoustic cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" that earned everyone's rapt attention. After putting that rendition to bed and getting seemingly knocked back by the loud ovation it received, the rest of the band joined Burton for the driving "Fire" as well as the strutty and rambunctious "Dirty Dirty." Burton kicked the raucous finale off, but eventually the whole band got in on the fun, each member getting a chance to sing a verse and show off while the frontman ventured deep into the crowd, saying hello and singing along with the adoring fans who, if they hadn't labeled Black Pumas as a new favorite before, certainly did after Saturday.
Hot and cool, loose-limbed yet musically tight, retro vibes that somehow feel brand new, it was a great end to Summerfest – and the beginning of something great with the Black Pumas.
"Next to You"
"Know You Better"
"Black Moon Rising"
"Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City"
"More Than a Love Song"
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.