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Dawn Burns / Blog

Songs in the Key of Love

BENTON HARBOR - Dawn Burns may try to convince you that "Here's to Love," the name of her forthcoming album and Friday's concert at The Livery, is a tribute to all of her favorite love songs over the years. And it's true. The set list for Burns' coming out party as a solo artist is filled with her soulful interpretations of songs by The Isley Brothers, Sade, Roberta Flack, Erykah Badu, Esperanza Spalding and both Lalah and Donny Hathaway. The inspiration for those soulful interpretations, however, may also have something to do with the guitar player in her band.

"When I sing (Spalding's) 'Cinnamon Tree' that's my dedication to him," Burns says, laughing. You see, Burns' guitarist is Marcus Robinson, who just happened to slip a ring on his leading lady's finger 10 days ago. In fact, Friday will be their first show together since their engagement.

"Yes, it's true," Robinson says. "I took her out to dinner at Copper Rock in New Buffalo and put a ring on her finger and the rest is history."

The history starts a few years back after Burns, a South Bend native, returned to the area in 2005 to sing in Fillmore's Ladder with her keyboardist brother, Scott Burns, as well as Mike Struwin & The Rootsdown Band. Robinson's band, Gun Metal Black, opened for Fillmore's Ladder at a gig in Mishawaka when as Robinson says, "neither one of us were in a position to act on the chemistry."

"They invited me up to play a song during their set," Robinson says. "That was my first introduction to Dawn and the chemistry was great from the start."

Last summer, Mike Struwin & The Rootsdown Band had played a gig in Saugatuck and were camping there for the night. Add a full moon, a campfire and more than one acoustic guitar, and, as Burns says, "something was about to happen."

They've been collaborating both on and off stage ever since, which means this love story has a happy musical ending.

Burns, like most musicians, has had her share of success. Her vocal style is firmly rooted in the gospel tradition, performing form a young age with her musical family. Burns moved to California in 1982 and performed with the West Angeles Church of God in Christ Mass Choir. She's backed Gladys Knight and Shanice and has worked with producers such as Ron Wynans and David Foster. Most recently she collaborated with Dave Carlock and the All-God's Children's Choir on a cover of John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" following the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.

For Friday's show, Burns has assembled an impressive list of musicians. In addition to Robinson, her band includes Peter Chwazik (bass), John Nyerges (keys) and Khamron Diggins (drums), with both Curtis Gulledge and Bonita Mitchell contributing vocals. As for the album, Burns is hoping to have "Here's to Love" ready for a spring release. But just like the wedding, neither Robinson nor Burns is ready to pick a firm date.

"We decided now was the time to really get some music together and just go for it," Robinson says.

"Here's to Love," indeed.

Burns Steps Forward to Take the Lead

Dawn Burns and Marcus Robinson (Photo provided) (January 16, 2013) JEFF HARRELL South Bend Tribune January 17, 2013

Don’t think for one second that her cheeky little grin is put there by nerves.

Although no one would blame Dawn Burns for getting nervous before hitting the stage for the first time on her self-driven transformation from backup vocalist to solo artist.

Or the engagement ring on her finger — put there by guitarist Marcus Robinson, Burns’ fiancé and musical driving force.

Or a combination of both.

“No, I’m excited,” Burns says, squashing the nervous theory like a bug. “I don’t really get nervous for this stuff because I make sure that I’m ready.”

Now, Dawn Burns and the Marcus Robinson Quintet performs Friday at The Livery in Benton Harbor and Saturday at Trio’s Restaurant & Jazz Club in South Bend.

“I understand there’s a lot more pressure, but it just feels very natural for me now,” Burns says. “To grow into this position, I worked really hard at it, so I’m glad to be able to finally do it.”

The road to that lead microphone on stage was paved with gospel roots. With a vocal style sown in church, Burns recorded as a member of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ Mass Choir.

She then branched out into other musical genres, first with local rockers Terry and the Heartbeats before sharing background vocal chores with Lena Kelly in the Grateful Dead-influenced Fillmore’s Ladder, a band that continues to serve as the driving force behind Mike Struwin’s Rootsdown Band.

But Burns found her place as a lead singer when she hooked up with local Motown torch bearer Darryl Buchanan.

“He really gave me a lot of opportunity to just grow as a lead vocalist by singing with him and appearing with him at Trio’s,” Burns says. “It really helped me develop a level of comfort as a lead singer on stage.

“But I’ve worked hard at it,” she says. “For the last two years or so, I’ve been putting myself out there and just trying to get as much experience as possible.”

Burns and Robinson met three years ago when Burns was performing at the Midway Tavern in Mishawaka.

The pair kept in touch, with Robinson going to Burns’ shows and Burns following Robinson’s improvisational jazz fusion band, Gun Metal Black.

When Robinson landed a gig last summer alongside Grammy-nominated soul singer Shanice, he asked Burns to join them for a performance in Baltimore.

“She likes to sing with other singers. She doesn’t like to be the only singer on the show,” Robinson says of Shanice. “I asked (Burns) if she wanted to come on it and do some lead singing on that show … and she came and knocked the thing right out of the park.”

When Burns and Robinson returned to South Bend, “We decided, it’s time girl,” Robinson says. “We gotta build an act around you.”

The act is called, appropriately, “Here’s To Love.”

“This is jazz-influenced, with soul and rhythm and blues,” Burns says, emphasizing the soul influence behind old-school covers of Erykah Badu, Roberta Flack and the Isley Brothers that she plans to take on. “The soul thing is mostly where the bulk of this is.”

And Robinson has enlisted an all-star crew — including members of Gun Metal Black — to back his fiancé for her debut solo weekend.

“We put together a stellar ensemble of jazz players that are local as well as from New York and Florida,” Robinson says, “just cats that I’ve been working with now for years and years. So the idea is to put a really jazz-inspired soulful ensemble together around her.”

Burns has no time to be nervous.

“We have a studio in our place, and we’ve been really wood-shedding a lot,” Burns says of her new life already with Robinson at her side. “Just spending a lot of time singing and working together and getting to know the songs.” Copyright © 2013, South Bend Tribune