Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires
At Lee's Palace
In Toronto on Saturday
Reviewed by Brad Wheeler
If he didn't already, now the soul singer had something to cry about.
After a booming performance of sweat-soaked outpour and horn-backed sorrow, Charles Bradley was doing his after-show thing, walking among his people in a super-packed room, giving and receiving full hugs from the fans who'd just experienced him intensely.
Then he cut his victory lap short, walking back on stage and asking that the house music be turned down. He had spent more than an hour singing us his blues, as he plumbed the depths of his imagination on golden rules, heartaches and a world gone up in flames.
Someone told him that Whitney Houston had died – he hadn't known. "Every moment and every second I do my best to show you that I'm a real soldier," he said, his expression somewhere between puzzled and pained.
Through his songs, we knew what kind of hardness this 63-year-old man had been through, but now he wanted to make sure we absolutely understood his role – and, by extension, the roles of others, be they Houston, Winehouse, Jackson or James Brown – which was to help make people's lives a little bit more bearable, in whatever time they had, even if the performers themselves hadn't overcome their own problems yet. "We're all just passing through," he said, head down.
Earlier, in one of the electric concert's bigger moments, Bradley and his young, white six-piece offered a spiffy, Memphis-ized take on Neil Young's Heart of Gold. The crowd began to sing along, but Bradley's version wasn't communal.
Earlier in the week, the Florida-born Bradley, who toiled in obscurity and took odd jobs for decades before recently signing with Brooklyn's retro soul-and-funk Daptone label, told The Globe and Mail that he had to feel a song written by someone else in his heart before he could sing it. On stage, resplendent in a series of sharp waistcoats – which he always took off, leaving him at one awesome point in just a vest – Bradley sang it all believably. Because it was true – about wanting to live, about wanting to give, and about getting old.
He stuck to the material of his only album, No Time For Dreaming. Against his band's deep-pocket groove, Bradley's voice scorched like Wilson Pickett's – on slow-dance love songs, on troubled ballads and on funkier fare that often spoke to a personal frustration as well as a much wider dissatisfaction. "Why is so hard to make it in America?" he genuinely wondered. On The World (is Going Up in Flames), Bradley worried that his crying wasn't being heard and that his trying wasn't being recognized.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
He would get down on his knees, in the way of the hardest working man in show business, to serenade his microphone stand. Toward the end of every number, Bradley – he is the Screaming Eagle of Soul – would gracefully wave his outstretched arms in a wing-like landing.
His afro was full, as was his belly (as his snazzy open vest revealed). He occasionally busted moves. Hip thrusts happened.
Here was a miner, searching for a heart of gold. A generous performer in every way, Bradley did on to us as he would have done on to himself. And as far as getting old, it's better than the alternative.