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

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

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

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


As always, Daptone Records HQ sent a crack team of players to assist Mr. Bradley as his "Extrordinaires" for the evening. Featuring some new faces as well as Bradley's main sideman, organist Mike Deller, the group did a Booker-T-style medley of a few tunes to rev up the crowd before the show, including "Summer in the City" by none other than Lovin' Spoonful. Charles has started to incorporate similar psychedlic grooves into his songs -- a bit heavier since his debut, which was more of a Stax/Volt type of kick. Songs like "Love Bug" and "Confusion" got a little freaky, with some wah-wah guitar solo action, and Charles Practicing his best Tai-Chi moves during the breakdowns.

Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires at First Avenue, 12/6/13
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires at First Avenue, 12/6/13
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires at First Avenue, 12/6/13
Photos by Erik Hess

Fans of the sweeter side of soul don't need to worry though, "Doctor Love" still has plenty of the good stuff left for you too. One of his best tunes off of the new album Victim of Love, called "You Put the Flame On It" has all of those good vibes that Charles Bradley has been making his signature. During the birdsong melodies laid down by the horns at the song's outro, the singer performed an adorable dance routine before dramatically leaving the stage for an outfit change.

While Charles does uptempo funk like a champ as well, his greatest power has always been the bleeding-heart, torch-bearing ballads that made singers like Otis Redding into household names. As if his moving take on Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" wasn't enough, Bradley backed it up with an absolutely show-stopping version of his aching "Lovin' You, Baby" that seemed to blow the audience's minds. During the climatic release in the song's simmering build-up, The Screaming Eagle showed how he earned his name, while bending down on one knee and sweeping the microphone with him, the lights catching his silhouette just right. That was when things really started to get special.

Bradley began a halting, improvised speech about how the crowd's smiles brought him so much joy, and began another breathtaking ballad, this time called "All I'm Askin'" followed by another speech. This time, speaking about the beautiful thing that is true love, and how he found it with his special lady. It was a truly moving moment, especially when he dedicated that same love right back to the audience as he walked offstage, blowing kisses and yelling "I love YOU!"

For the encore, we were treated to another wonderful taste of the chemistry between Mike Deller and the leading man. As Deller reintroduced Mr. Bradley to the stage, he made the crowd cheer extra hard in celebration of Charles' mother's 90th birthday. When the man himself returned to the stage, he gave Deller a hug before telling the rest of the story. Ms. Bradley had fallen severely ill during Charles' European tour, and she needs critical assistance at her home in New York.

While she's made peace with her maker, he told us, she wanted him to continue his mission. "She said, 'The world needs you'," explained Bradley, "'Go out and share the love'," and he bid us to do the same. This time, those tears welling up in his eyes were a mix of sorrow and joy, in a physical manifestation of the pained heart of his music. Seeming to gather himself, Charles pushed into the encore, delivering a take on "This Love Ain't Big Enough for the Two of Us," and "Doing it to Death" by none other than godfather of soul himself.

Both songs featured fantastic solos by all of the band's members, but it was truly Charles's night. Screaming "That's for you, momma!" he launched into "Victim of Love," the title track of his new record and something of a new statement of purpose for the soul legend in the making. Done as a sing-along by the band, with the crowd joining in, Mr. Bradley absolutely tore the house down on this one. Inserting a speech about his father's hand-illustrated bible, which contained a rose of red, yellow, and white. "I made a Black Rose too," said Bradley, quoting his father, "if we made a boquet of all these different colored roses, wouldn't that be a beautiful thing?" It would Mr. Bradley, it truly would, but last night, no rose was quite as sweet as The Black Rose himself.

Set List:
Band Intro Vamp
Crying in the Chapel
This World (is Going up in Flames)
Where Do We Go From Here
You Put the Flame On It
--Band instrumental Medley/Outfit Change--
Heart of Gold
Lovin' You Baby
Strictly Reserved For You
All I'm Askin'
This Love Ain't Big Enough For the Both of Us
Do it to the Death (Funky Good Time)

Critic's Bias: I'd follow Charles Bradley into battle, and I'm obsessed with his record label and their take on modern soul as well.

Overheard in the Crowd: "OMG Babetown! They all could be Disney Princesses" - in reference to Caroline Smith and her two backup singers, Hannah Von Der Hoff and Nina Moore.

Random Notebook Dump: Another great quote from Charles: "True love means you were mine the minute you walked through that door." In the case of First Ave last night, we were all his the minute he walked out onstage.

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