On an almost balmy Texas night in February 2018, a long line of live music patrons stretched down the 2000 block of South Congress Avenue, home to C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, one of Austin’s most popular spots for catching aspiring new bands. Well before the bar’s doors opened, people arrived to make sure they got into the intimate, 200-capacity room to bear witness to an act that had become the talk of the town before ever taking the stage: Black Pumas. That night’s sweat-soaked and euphoric performance took place on a cramped little riser with a cheap gold curtain shimmering behind it, but the magnitude of the moment was unmistakable.
Looking back, band co-founder Adrian Quesada will tell you it’s his favorite show the group has played. Even now, after all the success and accolades — tour dates around the globe, opening for the Rolling Stones, appearing on national television at least a dozen times, playing festivals, and snagging six Grammy nominations along with performing at the awards ceremony in 2021 — the night that launched the band’s legendary rise still stands out. “I remember getting off the stage … I had to sit down and compose myself,” Quesada says. “I was like: Oh, man, this is something special.”
The project paired his production wizardry and eclectic love of genres with the showmanship and unfettered charisma of Eric Burton, a self-taught musician who’d kicked around the American West for a decade and honed his skills busking on the Santa Monica Pier. The core duo recruited a lineup of impeccably skilled players to complete the outfit — keyboardist JaRon Marshall, bassist Brendan Bond and drummer Stephen Bidwell, along with backup vocalists Lauren Cervantes and Angela Miller.
To land the C-Boy’s gig, Quesada had sent Black Pumas’ earliest demos to the club’s proprietor, Steve Wertheimer, the guy who also owns Continental Club — a South Congress mainstay he built into one of the state’s most renowned small venues after taking control in 1987. The two men were buddies, and Quesada had quietly become local music royalty (after all, his project Grupo Fantasma played as Prince’s backing band in 2007). But neither of those factors were the thing that made Wertheimer so quick to jump at the opportunity to book Black Pumas.
“Eric’s voice is just magic,” Wertheimer remembers thinking when he first heard the songs. “And I’m a huge fan of soul and R&B.” Like Quesada, he felt there was something big on the horizon. The enthusiasm of a guy like Wertheimer meant a lot in the catapult that is the live music capital, and he wasn’t alone. Influential radio hosts like Jody Denberg and Laurie Gallardo were early adopters, singing the band’s praises when it was still in its infancy.
In 2019, the group signed to ATO Records, a large-ish New York–based indie label with a solid roster (Alabama Shakes, Brandi Carlisle, Drive-By Truckers) and plenty of industry connections to propel an exciting young act to new heights. But the pace of their ascension stems almost completely from the unforgettable energy of the group’s live show — it grips you and won’t let go, as if you’re a Sunday morning church congregant moved by the holy spirit. Once the word was out, everybody wanted a piece of the Pumas.
Almost six years removed from that first show, the band has not only played hundreds of sold-out concerts, but their anthemic hit “Colors” has permeated popular culture, appearing in movies, TV shows, commercials and during sporting events. They even played President Joe Biden’s inauguration party. Quesada and Wertheimer were dead on about everything the Pumas could be.
Unquestionably the next big thing from Texas, their meteoric rise was one of the best stories in music over the past half decade. Even a global pandemic couldn’t derail the Pumas’ upward trajectory.
But that ever-climbing arc came to a sudden pause last August when the band unexpectedly announced the cancellation of all their remaining tour dates and an indefinite hiatus. For several years running, the group had maintained a grueling schedule, with strings of dates in Europe and the U.S. halting only briefly to see family for a few quick days, which were still interrupted by press requests and one-off performances. “It was like every time we saw the end of the tour dates,” Quesada says, “they’d always tack on more, because we were still riding the success.” After pulling out of a few sporadic festival appearances and shows in spring 2022, the seven band members got together and unanimously made the tough decision to take a more deliberate step away.
Those outside the music industry likely can’t appreciate the toll of touring and making albums, but the average lifespan of a band should be a testament. Even wildly successful bands rarely last longer than a decade or a few albums, not to mention all the half-baked projects that never make it out of the garage. Quesada explains the intensity of the job like this: “Imagine living with all the people you work with, traveling with them, being around them nonstop. You get off work, and they’re still there. Then, you go to a party, and everybody’s there.”
Ultimately, the Pumas decision was a move of self-preservation to protect that thing they’d known from the onset was so singularly special. “We had to preserve that to make this all work,” Quesada explains. “We didn’t want to implode out there.” But getting a much-needed respite wasn’t the only factor at play. Quesada and Burton had almost an album’s worth of material that had been collected via sessions between tour stints and spots of random studio time in cities around the world. The band had been playing the same songs — however fantastic — for years now, and its members were itching to put out new material.
“Everybody gave it some space and just started touching base little by little,” Quesada says. “And by December, we were like, Okay, let’s start really doing this.” That meant Burton flying out to L.A. to work with production legend John Congleton for what Quesada calls a “vocal boot camp.” Although Congleton’s contribution is credited modestly as “additional recording and production,” those vital sessions yielded material for six of the 10 songs that would become a new album. Meanwhile, Quesada holed up in his home studio to weave together the loose threads of recorded work.
On July 18 of this year, the band posted an understated teaser photo to their Instagram feed: a bright orange hard drive labeled innocuously with a black marker, “Pumas II.” After nearly a year of silence, the group was poised to make a lot of noise with an imminent return.
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During a pre-show soundcheck in Amsterdam shortly before the band’s hiatus, Burton turned to his bandmates and implored them to follow along with some chords he’d been testing out — an ask predicated on a trust instilled from so many shows together. “We’ve done it enough that I’m able to see how much I can ask from a musician, as far as presenting colors for me to paint with,” Burton says. It was a rough jam session just to get the line levels down for everyone’s instruments and vocals, but that groove would soon become “Rock and Roll,” the epic closer for the band’s new album, Chronicles of a Diamond, released Oct. 27.
While Burton has noted that the moniker is a reference to a Curtis Mayfield track, it’s impossible not to consider the more overarching connotations of that titular jewel — a rare stone formed via years of intense pressure while hidden away only to emerge with splendid radiance. That’s an apt metaphor for Burton’s storied journey from street corners to the largest arenas in the country in a span of a few months.
Burton’s ability to live life in motion has served him well as the Pumas’ chronicles have had them on a nomadic voyage for the last half-decade. The new album features recordings from studio sessions not only in their hometown of Austin but also West Texas, San Francisco, Chicago and Amsterdam. Logging solid time in the studio isn’t logistically as straightforward as kicking open a guitar case on the sidewalk and starting to strum, but that wide range of sites underscores a similar penchant for making it work anywhere and everywhere.
Up until he met Quesada through a mutual friend in 2017, Burton’s musical tools were limited to his acoustic guitar and dramatic voice with a soulful allure. Quesada’s experience producing on projects like a Grammy Award–winning album for Grupo Fantasma provided Burton’s raw talent with the treatment it deserved on the Pumas’ self-titled debut. But the singer found himself equipped with even more brushes to employ in a larger role as a producer on the group’s new effort. Rather than channeling ideas through Quesada, Burton took a more active approach to bringing concepts to life this time around.
A couple of days after that collaborative soundcheck, the crew convened at Amsterdam’s Schenk Studio as Burton took lead on a session. “‘Rock and Roll,’” Burton says, “is one of the songs that came out of my producing to the degree that I’m coaching musicians in the studio to play the colors that I’m feeling.” During a few off days in the Netherlands, the group tracked the song with Burton at the helm to imbue the same frenetic and free-spirited energy as a Black Pumas live show.
Outside that newfound capacity as a conductor, Burton also found himself lending his creative talents while sitting behind the soundboard. During a 2 a.m. recording session in Austin, he pulled up a drum sample from an Al Green song and started experimenting with a buzzing guitar riff — elements that he’d use to flesh out “Ice Cream (Pay Phone),” the core of which he’d written some years prior. In the end, the band recreated the Al Green beat in the studio, but the concept remains the backbone of the arrangement. Easily the album’s most upbeat song, it’s a soul-funk romp that could soundtrack a sun-drenched strut through the streets of Motown.
You can see the frontman’s fingerprints on the facets of these soul-pop gems more clearly than ever before. Raised in a gospel church and informed by experiences as a stage actor in grade school, Burton’s presence always seems to serve a higher power. He’s a conduit that channels some divine muse into an earthly expression. In concert, that manifests as a communal experience linking the band with their devoted disciples in the audience. With the Pumas recorded material, it means filtering that transcendent moment of a show into an album just as urgent and dynamic. Without question, Burton is the soul savior at the forefront, but it takes the support of his entire cast of acolytes to pull the record together.
A steady rhythm of handclaps and shaker announces Chronicles of a Diamond. Those sparse few seconds are both a signal of the album’s R&B underpinnings and an open invitation to join in with your own percussive expression. Then, conga drums enter on the backbeat — Latin and soul rhythms laid atop each other. Ten seconds into the song, strings sweep across the mix gorgeously before Burton’s recognizable howl rings out. This first half-minute works perfectly as an overture, a sampling of the aural palette that awaits. “Life is more / More than a love song / More than a fantasy,” Burton croons on the cinematic chorus. As an aural and thematic follow-up to “Colors,” it’s a valiant effort. It might be next to impossible to strike that same chord again, but it rings true with the same universal spirit and finds an even more pronounced sense of grandiosity.
Elsewhere on the album, the Pumas explore the gritty side of soul on the title track, a woozy noir-pop cut with eerie organ juxtaposed against a buttery smooth chorus. And they traffic in retro-rock riffs and funky beats on the effortlessly chic “Sauvignon.”
While Quesada and Burton are capable of operating as a two-man music factory, carrying songs from their imaginations all the way to wax, they made a slight change in their process for the second record by tapping Shawn Everett (Kacey Musgraves, Alabama Shakes) to mix the album. Ceding control was tough for a guy as seasoned as Quesada. “The week before, I kind of had a freak out where I’m like, Man, are we doing the right thing? I know the stuff in and out, every little sound,” he says. “Then I went and listened to Alabama Shakes’ Sound and Color and the Brittany Howard solo album and was like, Nope, we’re definitely in good hands with this guy. Shawn’s a true freaking artist.”
Listening to the wealth of material on the Pumas’ sophomore album, it’s easy to see why Burton and Quesada were so eager to get off the road and get a new effort out into the world. Carrying around a trove of song snippets must have felt like holding onto a bag of roughly hewn jewels they couldn’t wait to polish and let shine.
The morning of Nov. 2, 2023, in the Texas capital began with a fierce chill and temps near freezing, but that didn’t stop Austinite Chris Bradley from being the first to arrive in front of C-Boy’s Heart & Soul at 10:30 a.m. Just days prior, Black Pumas announced a last-minute show at the small club, bringing them back to the venue that spurred their epic rise. Just as in 2018, tickets were available only on a first-come, first-served basis at the door, but this time the line formed much further in advance. What makes someone devote their entire day to waiting for a band? “This new album is so good,” Bradley says. “To be at the first show where they publicly perform the album at the original venue where they got started — you couldn’t write a better story.”
By early afternoon, the weather had turned idyllic, and a community of music lovers had assembled with folding chairs under the red and white vinyl awning of C-Boy’s. Somebody popped open a cooler of beer and invited everyone to partake. As night began to fall, the still-growing line snaked hundreds of feet from the bar’s entrance, and latecomers knew they didn’t have a prayer of making it inside. When the show began a few minutes past 8 p.m., the venue was packed shoulder to shoulder and vibrating with anticipation.
Just one song into the set, Burton was already soliciting involvement from the crowd: “Can y’all clap with me one time? Can we get down, C-Boy’s?” As he strutted around the stage and danced unabashedly, the frontman interjected little conversational barbs mid-song — a tendency that feels borrowed from a bygone era of music. “I see your hands in the back, and I’m sending love right back!” he shouted between two lines. “We’ll fly together,” he sang, before adding, “Even if we gotta take a whole year off before we see your lovely faces again!” While Black Pumas is certainly a retro soul band, Burton provides an authenticity that makes it feel less like a schtick and more like a mainline into the universal essence that defined the genre in the first place.
Before the set’s final song, a usually reserved Quesada hopped on a microphone to share a few sentiments. “It’s October 33,” he began, with a nod to a beloved Pumas song and the cleverly planned date of the show. “Thanks to Steve for believing in us. We didn’t have a plan, but he heard one or two songs and was like ‘Whenever you guys want to play.’” As the entirety of the crowd turned to find Wertheimer lurking at the back of the room and showered him with applause, it was clear just how much the Austin community means to Black Pumas’ notable success.
After the uproar, in the hushed seconds that followed, Burton piped up over the mumble of the crowd: “This is perfect,” he said. “I like the quiet chatter, because it almost emulates the sound of Sixth and Congress when I used to busk.” Some bands might loathe being back in the place where they first began, but remembering one’s origin seems central to who the Pumas are — an ever-present reminder of where this road started, where it’s led and where it’s going.
Then Burton began playing the soft guitar of new album cut “Angel,” a gospel-infused slow-burner built on the frontman’s commanding vocals, which swell and resolve beautifully, evoking the feeling of a paper-thin floodgate holding back a reservoir of emotion. Many fans know that several songs on the band’s debut have existed for over a decade and were played for passersby tossing loose change long before they were heard around the world. “Angel” is another such song, written in a California laundromat at a time when Burton was helping his ailing mother and struggling with enormous family hardship.
Burton has carried some of these songs across states for years as they, and he, transformed. Performing them at the site of the band’s genesis felt like an acute reminder to themselves who they are — a renewal of identity. This time, the Pumas have a similar certainty that a remarkable future awaits, but it won’t be rooted solely in faith. An already-booked world tour will traverse the globe in the coming months, including four consecutive nights in their hometown at ACL Live in early December.
Back in 2018, Quesada and Burton knew the Pumas would be something special, even when they were just playing to a room of a few hundred people — just as they knew a necessary break could propel the band into a new era. Reflecting on more than five years of the project, Quesada has come away with one lasting lesson: “The most important thing I’ve learned,” he says, “is to trust our own instincts.”
Cover photo by Jody Domingue.