So there is no doubt that one day the well of amazing singers from the golden age of funk and soul resurrected by Daptone and similar labels will dry up—however, that day is not today. Hot on the heels of his stand out performance at this year’s SXSW music conference and the release of his, debut alum No Time For Dreaming, Charles Bradley, with the help of Brooklyn’s Menahan Street Band, rock-and-souled the Echo with signature brand pleading southern soul.
Unlike many of his sixty-something blues/soul contemporaries, Bradley never stopped performing. His long and winding story, detailed in his song “Why Is It So Hard?” has stops in Florida, Brooklyn, Upstate NY, California and Brooklyn again, all the time working double duty as a cook and as a soul singer. And trust me, you can hear the dues-paying in each moan and scream. A powerful Bradley’s Wilson Pickett-like howl occasionally even pushed the Echo’s incredible sound system to its limits.
Bradley’s music is certainly in the Stax/Muscle Shoals vein of classic soul but there were moments of real James Brown-style clipped funk (“No Time for Dreaming”), early rock and roll (“Golden Rule”) and sweet ballads about sweet love (“I Believe in Your Love”) mixed in as well.
After an hour-plus of a classic soul DJ set (not dissimilar to the Echo’s Saturday night classic soul party, Funk Sole), the Menahan Street Band came on first for a few low key instrumental R & B numbers. Their fine but by-the-numbers replication of southern rhythm and blues didn’t really catch fire until Bradley joined them onstage but when he did, his joy was contagious. Please believe it when I say that Bradley may be the most grateful and humble performer I’ve seen. From his opening number (entering what looked to be a something like a soul admiral uniform) “Heartaches and Pain”, he belted, screamed, kicked, he fell to his knees, he even had mic tricks but never stopped thanking the crowd or expressing his love. He’s a performer, no doubt, but let’s face it the man can sing! His gravel and honey low end would shift suddenly into a powerful guttural wail on command and his flair for the dramatic has not been dimmed by his years in the kitchen.
Aside from his great soul voice, the other key to Bradley’s charm is his genuine joy to be on the stage. I have never seen a performer so gracious, so grateful to be in front of an audience. He took nothing for granted. When singing, he left it all on the stage. In between songs, he would hold the hands of, and personally thank, individual audience members for coming and being so raucous. What a breath of fresh air.
Unexpectedly, one of the gems of the evening was Bradley’s down tempo but still funky version of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”—with Bradley’s two-piece brass section playing Young’s sharp guitar lines, (which is his newly released single on Daptone). His deep, ragged and joyful voice matched the lyrics marriage of world-weariness and optimism. Unexpected, classic and totally enjoyable. Just like Bradley himself.
Words: Stephe Sykes
Photography: Ben Irwin