Charles Bradley says “I love you all” and I believe him. We all believe him. Then, as if there is any doubt, he walks to the edge of the stage, looking for a moment like he’ll take a stage dive, climbs off the stage and starts hugging people. He makes his way through the crowd for what seems like a long time, just hugging his now fans.
63 year old Charles Bradley, after years of poverty, living on the streets, being a chef in Alaska and a handy-man in New York, and occasionally playing a James Brown-like show as “Black Velvet”, finally released his debut album No Time for Dreaming last year. (He also released a few 7″s starting in 2002.) It was among the best debuts of 2011 and one of the best entries in the retro soul genre of bands recalling the sounds of R&B in the ’60s and ’70s.
Walking off the college-student-filled streets of Allston, into the sold out Brighton Music Hall, I saw DJ PJ Gray spinning some slamming soul 45″s on his turntables near the soundbooth. I took this as a good sign. Finding my way through the mostly young, mostly white crowd, I found a spot near the front on the left side of the stage. The Extraordinaires, Charles Bradley’s backing band–guitar, bass, drums, organ, tenor saxophone and trumpet–for this tour, took the stage to average applause. All young and mostly white, they launched into an instrumental groove that quickly dispelled any doubts if they could play authentic soul and funk–these were obviously kids who were not only talented at their instruments but were well versed in the classics they were emulating.
After a couple instrumental numbers, the organ player came to the main microphone and, in soul show style, played the hype man and introduced the singer, ending with “Give it up for ‘The Screaming Eagle of Soul’, Charles Bradley!” The room filled with cheers.
Bradley, smiling and wearing a ’70s style three-piece suit, greeted the crowd as the band launched into the next song. Rhythm section grooving, organ adding accents and horns nailing backup lines, Bradley’s voice quickly soared above it all. With James Brown-like screeches and wails, he blew through songs, full-voiced and using a deep well of emotion and experience to give appropriate and fantastic weight to his words. By the third song, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “This is why I go to live music.” This is that once-a-year (or more) live show that buoys the spirit and leaves one with new respect not only for the artist but music in general.
Bradley sang and gestured and balled up his fists against his chest, but he also knelt, pantomimed his cross to bear using the microphone stand and, of course, danced–sometimes slick, practiced moves and others that seemed like he came up with on the spot. He did fast feet, went down in splits, and ground his hips.
Midway through the show, Bradley left the stage while the band did another instrumental groove. Bradley reemerged having gone through a costume change–shiny pants and an African-print vest that split open at the bottom to reveal his slight gut.
As the show went on, the band hit their hard notes harder, their soft notes softer and Bradley’s anguish, pain–one song is about his brother being shot and killed; another about drifting around trying to find a job–and joy all worked themselves out simultaneous. Here was a man who had led a tough life, struggling and striving to be a performer for years, finally getting his chance to perform in front of sold out audiences. And this audience accepted this and returned with an ecstatic atmosphere–cheers, shouts, hands-in-the-air.
The set ended in a frenzy with the band in a loud, hard groove and Bradley on one knee talk-singing the words to the Lord’s Prayer, transported perhaps somewhere between the Lord and the audience for that moment. He stood up, declared his love for all of us and went into the audience for that multitude of hugs.
The show seemed over, the band left the stage and Bradley was somewhere in the crowd, but eventually the loud cheers brought the band back to the stage. After one last, quick instrumental, Bradley returned to the stage for “Why is it So Hard,” the anguished burning ballad from No Time for Dreaming, letting his own anguish pour out, leaving the audience nearly speechless.
At the end of it all, there was only one thing that could be said: I love you, too, Charles Bradley.
See the full set of photos on flickr.
Enter a contest to have Charles Bradley serenade your loved one for Valentine’s day.
Tour dates for the US, Canada, Australian and Europe after the jump. I highly recommend trying to see him if you can.