There are soulful singers, and there are soul singers. Charles Bradley is one of the rare latter. At the Phoenix Theatre on Saturday, the Brooklyn-based Florida native presented as a broadly casting performer whose worry extended beyond his own troubles, of which he has had his share.
His Where Do We Go From Here, for example, began as a dark, funked-up piece of psychedelic soul on the next course of a specific romantic involvement. But it was more. Bradley, a sexagenarian of unfiltered heart and rasped exclamation, was asking a bigger question – on how to save the world from its tumult and unbrotherhood – while he demanded of everyone to “make a change.” Where do we go from here – anyone?
On occasion, I have been asked the difference between a blues singer and a soul singer. I see blues as a personal gloom, and I defer to a liner note on an old Elmore James 45 for a pithy description of the genre: “That which I myself experienced! That which I, myself, have seen, heard, and done – and I am an old man, veteran of the hard going, stupid with sleepless nights, dicing to pay life’s hard account … I sing!”
And when James sang, his sadness (and his audience’s) passed for the moment. He had dusted his broom, so to speak, of the woman who had done him wrong.
Soul singing, on the other hand, is rooted in gospel – the implications of sanctified shouting presumably being heavier than that of the secular. I give you Aretha Franklin, who won more than spelling bees with her version of Respect, a feminist anthem when sung by her.
Or I give you Lauryn Hill, whose latest single was issued under personal duress – she rushed it out in advance of her sentencing on federal tax evasion charges – and yet her lyrics take issue with the world at large. Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix) is a rapid-fire rap-screed on a “vampire paradigm” and a sick civilization.
Before Bradley and his dynamite band hit the Phoenix Theatre stage, the warm-up sounds on the speakers were soul-based, including Hard Times, first recorded in 1971 by Baby Huey, a 400-hundred-pound fellow who sang about fear, cold and jealous eyes upon him and brothers who wanted to hold him up and bring him down.
Bradley would identify with the song; his new-found success – the one-time cook and James Brown imitator achieved his late-in-coming breakthrough with the release of 2009’s No Time For Dreaming – has caused envy among his circle.
Here, he arrived to a sold-out audience with the MCs describing him as “unstoppable and untoppable.” The reception from his fans was as energetic as I’ve heard in some time. He soaked it up, and then proceeded to give back double.
The repertoire, culled from No Time For Dreaming and its recently released follow-up Victim of Love, was a mix of smooth, William Bell-styled Stax-label sentiments and wilder, wah-wahed, ball-of-confusion distress.
Gyrations, vocal declamations and trilling horns happened too.
Before Bradley came out for his two-tune encore, the MC told of Bradley’s trouble at the Canadian border on the weekend. Apparently a transgression on Bradley’s record (from 37 years ago) was a concern to the officials. Bradley mentioned the incident during Why Is It So Hard?, a slow-burning autobiography on one hand, but a question to society on the other. “Why is it so hard to make it in America” is the song’s full question and ultimate uncertainty.
In 1970, James Brown released Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing, a comment, according to the highest ranked soul brother himself, on out-of-touch politicians. We could probably also apply the reaction to many modern so-called soul singers, what with their self-centered earnestness. Bradley, who has blues but sings soul, is not one of them. Like Marvin Gaye, he asks the biggest questions. What’s going on? We still don’t know.
Charles Bradley plays Montreal’s Corona Theatre, May 13.