Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires at First Avenue, 12/6/13

Categories: Last Night
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Photo by Erik Hess

Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires
with Caroline Smith
First Avenue Mainroom, Minneapolis
Thursday, December 5, 2013

Being a Soul Man and all, Charles Bradley gets to have a lot of nicknames. He's "The Victim of Love," he's "Doctor Love," he's "Black Rose" and "The Screaming Eagle of Soul" too. But his PR folks really ought to just go ahead and state the obvious at this point. Charles Bradley may be all of those things, but he's a goddamn National Treasure too.


Listen, if the people of Madison, Wisconsin managed to stop keg-standing long enough to decree December 4 as "Charles Bradley Day" in their fair town, it's about time for a presidential medal of something or other to be mailed to the man's house. After all, his story is a quintessential tale of the American Dream. He grew up hard in Brooklyn, in a home so poor he had to make his bed on the sand floor of their damp cellar. He escaped his mother's house at the age of 14, only to end up homeless, sleeping on the streets and subway cars for two whole years. He'd watched numerous attempts at a singing career wither and die, making ends meet by working in kitchens and moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator until the good folks at Daptone Records heard him one fateful evening. Charles himself put it best during his show last night, during the first of his many sincere tributes to his fans.

Thank you for making my dream come true," the Black Rose said, with real tears welling up in his eyes, "But remember, you've got dreams too. Let your heart shine!"

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Photo by Erik Hess

It was an inspired bit of booking to put Caroline Smith and her band-formerly-known-as-The-Goodnight-Sleeps up before Charles, her charms were almost as enchanting as the main event. The local singer/songwriter has been honing her chops all year on tour, putting a big push behind her expectation-shattering new record Half About Being a Woman. Trading the folksy strumming and indie-rock stylings of her first two releases, Ms. Smith has transformed into a full on blue-eyed neo-soul diva capable of belting some seriously impressive notes and making it look far to easy.

Some of her best tunes of the night, the gospel-flavored "Buy Me Something" and "Walking Off Strong," showcased her wide range from brassy to a whisper. Also handling the sole guitar responsibilities with finesse, Caroline and the band seemed to have a real understanding and appreciation of the style they were playing, and the crowd responded to that sincerity in kind. While a more uncharitable critic than myself might have found her riff through Kendrick Lamar's "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" during the darkly romantic "Bloodstyle" to be an example of appropriation, it seemed more of a goof than anything. Smith was self-aware enough to keep the cover brief, and thoroughly in the realm of appreciation.

Because of the incredible voice she possesses, and her irresistible charisma, Caroline's talent for crafting really deep pop songs often gets overlooked. Even since her spare first release, Smith has imbued even her frothiest of creations with emotional honesty and a clear-eyed sense of the world normally not seen in writers of her age. While a great deal of the new material she played revolves around cheerful monogamy, she's not playing naïve in the least. Her songs have always presented love, warts and all, as something beautiful, and that's a quality she shares with the incomparable Mr. Charles Bradley.

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Photo by Erik Hess

If we could all have the blessing of hearing a sermon or motivational speech from Bradley at least once a week, I think we might just be able to achieve world peace, or at least lead happier, more productive lives. We talk about how artists have "it" a whole lot in this job. Charles Bradley is it. Incarnate. This might sound like hyperbole, but you really have to see the man to believe it.

More than any of the other performers on the sterling Daptone Label, Charles really embodies the wide embrace of the soul music he performs. It's such a true gift to see any entertainer, especially one that just turned 65, give himself over to the show so completely. The Screaming Eagle of Soul can still dance like a madman, toss his mic with the magic of James Brown, and even do the splits at an age where a lot of folks stop moving altogether. Then there's the voice, and oh, what a voice it is. Like honey on toast, like the scrape of your mailbox on payday, battle-scarred yet so tender.



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