I’m fascinated by artists that, for one reason or another, reach a level of stardom in their later years. Why did it take people so long to recognize their talent? How did they manage to persist? Were they as good before as they are now? Sometimes these questions reveal fascinating stories; sometimes it’s just a tale of dumb luck or bad timing. Sharon Jones (R.I.P) comes to mind whenever I think of this. So too does Charles Bradley, a man who, after so many years of struggling to make it, finally arrived, only to have life threaten to take it all away. Perhaps that’s the reason he performs like so few others.
Watching him in concert is exuberance and emotion personified. Everything is passionate with every lyric ending in a howl. His distinct, raspy, and guttural voice hearkens back to the soul singers of old, smooth but not sweet. Seeing Bradley is like being transported back to the 60’s, where all a man needed was a mic and good back-up band to blow away a crowd. But don’t mistake simple with plain as that is far from the case. He is more fly than a man his age, or any age, should be; walking onto the stage in a black jumpsuit, silver sequenced muscle shirt, a glitter skull belt buckle, and shoes to match…can you say swag?
The only thing that looked out of place was the group behind him, who looked more like his grandchildren than his bandmates. It was a great contrast, but only in age, because what they lacked in “number” was made up in intensity, matching Bradley’s howls with every blow of the horns and beat of the drum! They played the perfect blend of funk and soul; enough to dance to, enough to resonate deep within. You’d think with all the energy surrounding him, Bradley would be all over the stage dancing and flailing like a modern-day James Brown, but he wasn’t. For the most part he just stood there, statuesque, barely moving an inch, except for his face. Perhaps because he’s older and performs with so much passion, you sense the pain, despair, and gratitude of a life that’s been lived. That what he sings about reveals truth and is more real than what somebody that’s young can possibly understand or express. All that emotion and experience is captured brilliantly by his face.
And when he sings songs like Changes or Heartaches and Pain you can’t help but wonder who’s going through his mind. Or if songs like No Time For Dreaming and How Long strike a deeper chord after his recent battle with and, thankfully, successful treatment for stomach cancer. Imagine how that must feel; to finally make it, after fighting for so long, only to be forced into the most difficult battle of your life. He shared that story, but more important, triumph with all those there. It’s no wonder his smile was beaming as he thanked fans for their support through his ordeal. The moment was heartfelt and emotional. It was no less than what you’d expect; it was no less than how he performed.