Charles Bradley grabs his audiences, thrills them all upside down.
On one warm weekend this July, Eminem roared and rapped at Osheaga Festival in Montreal, Arcade Fire stormed through a surprise tent show in Sackville, N.B., Drake invited Stevie Wonder onstage in Toronto and the members of U2 completed their mammoth world tour in Moncton.
But it was an unlikely newcomer, the so-called Screaming Eagle of Soul, born in 1948, who stole hearts and thunder. Bradley, an ultra-generous performer, hugged and was hugged back at Sackville's SappyFest, and at Osheaga, too, warming young crowds who might not have known his kind still existed, let alone that they could be in any sort of late-blooming prime.
Usually in a red suit and with his face glistening with a mix of sweat and tears, Bradley sings deeply about human loss and societal wrongs. "It's the experience of life that you've been through, your heartaches and pains," the Florida-born, Brooklyn-raised singer told an interviewer recently about his material. "If I don't dress it up, nobody would want to hear it. But if I let it come out in a sweet way, you wanna hear it."
The college-radio crowd does want to hear Bradley, absolutely. His album, No Time for Dreaming, has the sound of something from another era – James Brown or Otis Redding – but it's happening now. It's real, and it's something the indie-rock crowd can call its own.
"There was an undeniable sense of joy and love emanating from Charles," says Paul Henderson, SappyFest's artistic director. "He got everyone in a crowd of 1,500 people to hold hands. He walked out into the crowd and hugged everyone. It was spiritual. It didn't feel like a rehashing."
The youthful cognoscenti's embrace of Bradley and other acts from the Brooklyn-based Daptone record label, including funk soulsters Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Lee Fields and Bradley's former sidemen, the Budos Band, is reminiscent of the folk-blues revival of the 1960s. Now, as then, it is unexpected music – an unthreatening strangeness – that sounds right and deep to the iPod generation.
In his book Feel Like Going Home, Peter Guralnick wrote about his hip crowd's embrace of long-forgotten blues artists: "We never imagined we would see any of these shadowy figures from our mythology. We never dreamt that Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, all would be rediscovered." For Guralnick and his crowd, just as for the young white electric-blues aficionados in Chicago, the music and its players were something tucked away in the past. "As far as we were concerned," he wrote, "there were no contemporary blues singers."
Audiences probably feel the same way today, though that seems to be changing. Young Gary Clark Jr., who last month released his major-label debut EP The Bright Lights, is turning the heads of fans and musical tastemakers both. The Texas singer-guitarist, who was a hit at the Bonnaroo and South by Southwest festivals this year, recently astounded a youthful crowd at Toronto's Rivoli club on Queen Street West, where he impressed people raised on blues clichés and bad Samuel L. Jackson movies. He's not slick, he does not sing Sweet Home Chicago, his hat wear is enviable and there's no falseness to him.
"He's not afraid to hit a bad note," an official with Clark's label, Warner Music, marvelled afterwards, in a nearly shocked tone.
A recent Wall Street Journal story gave an account of a music-industry showcase at SXSW, held annually in Austin, Tex., a musical hotbed that is also Clark's hometown. Concerned more with the free brisket and collard greens, the assembled suits paid Clark no never mind. "It's one of those things," the musician said afterward. "I'm like, 'Hi. If you're not into it, fine. I'll be doing it anyway. I made the invitation. It's no big deal. Maybe we'll meet up later on.' "
That kind of attitude – no sense of entitlement – is something that appeals to indie audiences. "I spoke to Charles [Bradley] in the green room, before his show," recalls SappyFest's Henderson. "He asked me about the festival, the people and New Brunswick. He was just so grateful to be there."
These are different kinds of stars, the Bradleys and the Clarks. Bradley has worked as a cook, a handyman, a factory worker and a shoe-shiner – his song Why is it So Hard? is autobiographical. On Heartaches and Pain, he moans about his brother, shot dead. And yet, on the title track, the humble performer is resolute: "No time for dreams, gotta get on up and do my thing."
His thing, finally, is appreciated.
Charles Bradley plays Vancouver's Biltmore Friday, Sept. 2; Victoria's Club 919 Saturday, Sept. 3.