Brainy, brawny, subtle and strong, the collaboration Black Sun (avant-funk-blues trio Harriet Tubman with singer Cassandra Wilson) lit up The Egg’s Swyer Theater on Saturday.
Harriet Tubman set the table with the instrumental “Thought of the Sun,” porkpie-hatted drummer J. T. Lewis and redlocked guys guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Melvin Gibbs cataloging grooves before Ross set up a slow feedback reverie discretely spiced with riff loops. Ross had warned Wilson fans that electric bass and guitar would produce “a different energy,” but that first number hit so fine that I yanked my earplugs halfway through: I wanted all of this. Hats off to the sound man.
Ross shifted to banjo when Wilson came on, golden dreds ringing her head, regal in a bold print dress and boots up to there, perfect for the “Let me be your fantasy tonight” refrain of “Hither,” a mid-slow seduction deluxe. Nervous drum clatter and slow-drag guitar and bass tugged Wilson into the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a singularly inventive mutation as Wilson strapped on her guitar for the first time, but tentatively, as if seeking the noise she wanted to make next in the defiant “Overcome Some Day.” A message song portraying statement of purpose, then threat, then serene promise, this rode on march-time drums.
“Black Sun” kept the liberation message strong, launching from talk on the African origins of the banjo into a freight train groove; Gibbs strumming chords on his bass, Wilson fingering vivid guitar decoration.
serene to edgy
The serene instrumental “No Great Sorrow” set up the devastating “Strange Fruit,” Wilson’s calm alto cruising on Harriet Tubman’s agitated riffs. Next came the comic relief of “Bow Legged Man,” playful but bluesy. Ross sang “Can’t Tarry” persuasively before Wilson closed the set with “Taller,” a chunky groove that seemed all edge with assertive guitar and drums crying turmoil.
Harriet Tubman encored without Wilson in the brief instrumental “Of Passage” before Wilson joined Ross for a duet in “O Sole Mio” in Italian — beautiful and compelling. Hypnotically lyrical in this duet,
Ross had earlier played like a zookeeper running a vast sonic menagerie. Suave and unflappable, Lewis didn’t need solos to impress, though he obviously enjoyed himself in his star-time late in “Taller.” Gibbs was a rock all the way, smooth and understated.
Harriet Tubman played like the band Wilson has always wanted. A crisp and supple trio on their own, they responded to her sound and charisma like the crowd did, but they were ideal to support, frame and inspire her while the crowd could just marvel and proclaim love.
Few singers own the stage and the audience with Wilson’s confident commanding presence, and the Harriet Tubman guys magnified and intensified this feedback loop by making the sounds that powered it. Their message was strong but warm, not didactic: We’re all from Africa and the music of Africa is spiritual, sonically diverse and deeply healing. And they made music on Saturday that carried this message straight to the heart.