Words and Images by: Donovan Farley
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires :: 7.25.14 :: Oregon Zoo ::
There are few performers that are part of today’s musical landscape whom embody America
Charles Bradley, both the astronomical possibilities for success and the perilous,
soul-crushing defeats that are the fate of so many. From a childhood racked with abject
poverty, absent parents and homelessness, to a phoenix-like resurrection in late adulthood
that includes wealth, comfort and worldwide adoration, Charles Bradley has seen The Land
Of The Free from a perspective that few others can even begin to comprehend. It’s a past
Bradley seems to be utilizing, or exercising, every time he steps on stage, and last
Friday at the Oregon Zoo in Portland was a perfect representation of that feeling.
In most live music settings; there is a palpable feeling of excited anticipation shared
among audience as they await the evening’s performer. At a Charles Bradley show there is
literally a huge, goofy smile plastered directly on every grill in the house. It’s as if
The Screamin’ Eagle Of Soul’s joyful appreciation of his current hard-earned good fortune
is contagious among the audience even before he steps on stage.
The pre-show scene was filled with buzzed and smiling couples slow-grinding on each other
with contented, bleary eyed grins and hip looking parents who were busy geeking out on the
nearby elephants with their tiny future musicians (baristas) perched in amazement atop
their shoulders. As always, Bradley attracted a wide range of diversity among his audience
members, and it’s always wonderful to see totally different people bonding, if only for an
hour or so, over that great unifer of strangers: damn good music.
The wonderful, “so glad to be here” overall ambiance of the evening was cemented directly
from the outset when Bradley and his Extrodianaires were introduced and suddenly a
thunderous roar of approval sounded from among the elephants. Mostly likely they were
arguing over food and/or a female and were possibly about to tear each other asunder
before our very eyes, but who knows? Perhaps elephants dig on soul music too folks. That’s
Bradley and his crack band the Extrodinaires are old school soul through and through: from
his James Brown-esque sequined getups (Bradley used to perform in a Brown tribute act as
“Black Velvet”), to his Otis Redding-esque world-weary vocals, to his hypeman-style
introductions down to the Extrodinaires' tight suits and dance moves, both Stax and Motown
are very present in everything he does. What makes Bradley’s music stand above other soul
acts of today from is that the moment he opens his mouth, it’s painfully obvious that this
man has truly lived the blues, and that the anguish in his voice needs no embellishment.
On songs like the autobiographical “Why Is It So Hard?” you can truly feel the desperation
in Bradley’s sorrowful croon as he wonders aloud if this is what “a land of milk and
honey” is supposed offer its citizens as he sleeps on a freezing Brooklyn subway car. And
since we Americans love a comeback story, his uplifting songs are truly moving, knowing
how high Bradley now stands.
Another factor in making Bradley’s performances so vivid and memorable is the sheer
physicality he displays while performing. The man is 65-years-old but when he starts
moving it’s something to behold; at the Shaky Knees Festival in Atlanta this May I saw him
gyrate so intensely his belt buckle came flying loose, much to the joy of the females in
the audience. Friday night was no different: Bradley did splits (!), several spins into
leg kicks so high I would never even dare to attempt them, kung fu dance moves, carried
his mic stand on his back across the stage as a metaphorical weight, made love to the air
more than once (complete with finger licking) and finally, did the robot.
In the past few years, I’ve seen Charles Bradley and the Extraordinaires in Brooklyn,
Athens and Atlanta and Portland, and each time the man has held nothing back, completely
giving himself to his audience and performance in a way that’s unlike almost every other
performer in music today. You get the feeling watching him that Bradley truly understands
how lucky not only he is to be alive, but how fortunate all of us are to be given such a
gift as life.
Nothing summed up this belief more than the scene I witnessed backstage, as a clearly
winded (but happy) Bradley made the rounds meeting and greeting a few lucky fans. As
people beamed in awe at Bradley as he signed their records and thanked them for coming
out, his tour manager pulled him aside and whispered something in his ear about there
being “just one more” and “I think you’ll like this.” I followed Charles as he made his
way past the backstage barriers out into the now empty venue and was greeted by a clearly
flustered young man who hurriedly explained that he and his bride were going to be dancing
to a Charles Bradley song when they got married in five days time. Bradley took the young
woman’s hand (after asking permission of both the bride and groom), got down on one knee,
said a prayer and blessed her ring! The moment was so sincere and beautiful that I (and
everyone else with a camera) choose simply to watch instead of take pictures. He then
turned to the young man told him that whenever they fought, to take a breath and think
about the first time he realized he loved her, because love isn’t only the most important
thing. It’s the only thing.
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