May 20 2010 12:00 AM

Sun Messengers follow James Brown’s sweaty tracks

    100_5462.jpgHow do you get to The Palace of Auburn Hills?

    Ride that funky mudslide.

    The Sun Messengers started out 30 years ago as an eclectic
    jazz-world-funk outfit with overtones of jazz’s mystic mastermind, Sun Ra. Now
    it’s the official band of the Detroit Pistons, riling everybody up with brassy
    Motown and funk grooves that pulsate with Motor City pride. The band performs at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Mi.Funk Festival at Grand River Avenue and Turner Street in downtown Lansing.

    “Artists need to reach out and be entertainers,” founder and
    baritone sax man Rick Steiger said. “Go back to the era before 1950: Jazz was
    music for dancing.”

    Steiger said The Messengers began as Detroit’s first
    world-beat band.

    “We had two percussionists, doing everything from South
    African jazz to Sun Ra to originals,” he said. “We found out playing for
    dancing is fun.” After that, the band gravitated to the Detroit sound – “music
    that gets people in southeastern Michigan dancing.”

    They still perform original tunes — a 30th
    anniversary disc of all-new music is due out this year — but covers are its
    bread and butter.

    “I say this in all humility, but nobody around here can do
    James Brown like we do,” Steiger said.

    Steiger sees funk everywhere in popular music, especially
    hip-hop and rock.

    “For a while, James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’ beat was slowed
    down, sped up and sampled every which way,” he said. “It was all over the pop
    charts, and a lot of people didn’t even know that’s what it was.”

    Funk is no less than “the Africanization of American music,”
    in Steiger’s view.

    “It’s a parallel to what Latin music was doing in that it’s
    stretching out the rhythm,” he said. “When James Brown did that, he basically
    took the music right back to Africa.”

    In the ’80s and ’90s, the Sun Messengers were a frequent
    visitor at Rick’s American Cafe in East Lansing, flirting with fire code
    violations for packing so much horn firepower in an enclosed space.

    Steiger said he hasn’t played Lansing since he and the Sun
    Messengers jammed at Old Town galleries with legendary local sax man Ron Gulyas
    (Big Red) in the late 1980s.

    He was delighted to see a funk festival sprout up here in

    “I’ve been waiting for somebody to do
    something like this,” he said. “It shows that there are some visionary types in