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