"Get out there and seek your dreams"- Charles Bradley, 12/6/2013
Last summer in downtown Chicago, Lollapalooza was taking place with the Cure, Mumford and Sons, Nine Inch Nails and the Killers headlining the three-day event. What no one could have anticipated was how a sixty-five year old soul crooner would steal the weekend. Charles Bradley (along with his band The Menahan Street Band) may have only been performed for an hour, but make no mistake, watching him was nothing short of a musical miracle. Taking to the stage in a purple suit, Bradley owned the crowd with his inspirational confessionals and exuberant performance. Perfectly capturing the essence of 60's r-and-b soul, Bradley does not mimic this genre as own it. "You Put the Flame On Me" would have been an enormous hit in the 1960s if it had existed. Pulling himself out of poverty and working miscellaneous jobs for decades before moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator, Bradley has lived a life full of staggering lows and now unbelievable highs. After a series of singles, he released his first record in 2011 on Daptone Records and followed it earlier this year with the soulful and secular Victim of Love. Despite being in his sixties, Bradley's was a physical dynamo on the concert stage, out performing most acts half his age. Watching him swing the microphone stand to the ground only to whip it back by the cord in time to meet his cue was simply one of several astonishing moments where you pinch yourself making sure you are not dreaming. Bradley is a man who is doing more than breathing life into poignant and purposeful music, but is the living personification that a dream, no matter how old, never dies as long as you believe in yourself.
After a couple of instrumental funk and soul numbers, Charles Bradley took to the stage of Chicago's Metro capturing the spirit of Otis Redding and James Brown. This same spirit for over two hours was alive and well in the human form of Charles Bradley. Performing most of his stunning 2013 album, Victim of Love (one of the top three records of the year), Bradley crooned in a way few can or ever will. Bradley has lived through hardship no one person should ever have to endure, documented wonderfully in the great documentary Charles Bradley: The Soul of America. Despite spending much of his life in a tunnel that only knew pain, Bradley is not the least bit jaded. While his debut No Time For Dreaming teetered towards the shadows that overcome us, Victim of Love is infused with bright-eyed soul. There is newfound optimism that permeates throughout the record and especially is evident in the live show. The records are resounding reveals into the soul of a man who has lived a hard life, but the concert performances demonstrates the supremacy of love and redemption and how it's within our grasp. His band matches the material. They are a seven-piece army ready to take their message to every city. The brass, bass and organ bled together in a magnificent manner with no one member outshining the other but together they congeal like a perfect culinary confection. With the band playing with all of the passion and purpose in the world, Bradley focuses on delivering his message of soul like few I have ever seen. He may have been a simple man who was an entertainer at one time but he is now a man with a message of love and he is taking no prisoners.
"The World (Is Going Up In Flames)" was a standout moment early on, as his voice did not just serenade the crowd but his inflictions captured a man who does more than show up and smile but who is trying everything in his power to make a connection with his audience. His pains are ours while his joys are equally ours as well. "How Long" was sung with the certainty of a man who captures everyone's pain points while reviving them one note at a time. The skipping rhythm of "You Put The Flame" enraptured the sold-out crowd of 1,100 inside the Metro. The temperature hovered around the single digits outside but inside it was as warm and welcoming as your own family's house during the holidays with the main course. He may be nearly old enough to collect social security but Bradley and his band challenged the Chicago crowd with extended jams, gripping odes to love and tales of hope, faith and devotion. The key to being a great artist is to express your pain with the world. The sound and production of Bradley's two records are faultless as they encapsulate the sound of Stax and Motown but even with their technical wizardry, it would not mean anything without heart. His records are not mere pieces of vinyl but sacred texts of battles lost and won.
As he looked the crowd in the eye, he told them, "You want the real thing and I'm going to bring it to you", and he did just that. He is equally comfortable in the small club as he was on the festival stage. There was no difference in the performance from what I witnessed at Lollapalooza; he managed both stages with the ease of a top tier performer. I would love to see someone like Bruno Mars take him on the road as an opener. The only downside to this is they are possibly terrified at the prospect because e has that instinctive aptitude to steal the show from the headliner possibly every night. On "Hurricane", Bradley bled like a true artist reaching out giving the audience his all. His arms were stretched out, his eyes tightened and he delivered a spine-shivering howl that came from somewhere deep within. A punk Sly Stone riff that echoed doom and gloom accentuated the funk grove of "Confusion". His grand movements work because of the personality behind the microphone. In this day and age where a performance can be had on any computer courtesy of YouTube, the audience must believe in the message of the man behind it and when you look upon Bradley it is evident he's signing from his gut. His eye contact with individual members of the audience does not come from a sense of ego or entitlement but because he needs to share his personal pain and triumphs with them. Some arena acts treat their audiences like one-night stands that do not resonate for long. The key to any long lasting and nurturing relationship is intimacy and he thrives on it. Little touches like winking at the audience, hip shaking dance movies and even walking through the audience.
Charles Bradley is the Karate Kid of soul. He is more than a feel good story but an artist who reaches for the heavens but a game changer for the unassuming. Contestants on television shows want to be stars but Bradley wants to convey something insightful; a deeper sense of love and therein lays the fundamental difference from a singer and a star. After six decades or more hardship than any one person should endure, Bradley has come through the other side. He looks of every day, every song and ever show as a blessing. Towards the end of the marathon two-hour show, he asked the Chicago crowd, "Are you looking for real love?" and they responded rapturously as he stunned the crowd with a en-minute version of "Victim of Love". What he was trying to tell us is that love is something that is inside every one of us and is ready to be excavated. Even when he wallows in heartache, he finds a way to love and turn the other cheek. Never do you feel like the escape is temporary. This is not a conjugal visit but full on freedom. We are all victims of love; the question is whether we will let the heartache define is or mold us for the next adventure? Watching Bradley move and shake is a surreal dream come to life. Every time you cheer him on you are resuscitating a dream that almost died. It is impossible not to set eyes on him with awe and wonder because you speculate what would have happened if this talent never was discovered? All I know is that our lives would contain a little less beauty and soul. He calms pains and amplifies joy. If you had all of the love in this world and saw Bradley on the concert stage, your heart would grow even larger simply by observing this colossal talent.
I have never seen anyone quite like Bradley, who found his voice so late in life. Nevertheless, this has been the key to his greatness, he's not a young kid obsessed with fame, but a man who sings with good intentions. His presentation at the Metro was laced with inspirational and empowering messages that never preach but come from someone steeped in optimistic views. Bradley has the life experience of coming through anguish and into the light and every second he spent onstage was a life affirming delight to watch. Charles Bradley has made it to the other side and he is not going to waste a single moment and chooses to spread the happiness inside of him. A part of you is overcome with joy because his dreams came true. It serves as a reminder that if we hold tight to our faith, ours may become a reality too.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Best of 2013: Charles Bradley Live- A Spiritual Soul