There’s showmanship and then there’s Charles Bradley. Since he has spent a reasonable amount of time as a James Brown impersonator named “Black Velvet”, you can assume that the man knows how to step onto a stage and perform. While his stage presence does take a cue or two from the late legend Brown, Bradley has come into his own as the Screaming Eagle of Soul. It’s not just reverence to the old ways of showmanship; it’s a heralding of it to the present. Bradley and His Extraordinaires, the band that magnificently backs him, made their way to Chicago this week for two shows, one at Evanston SPACE and one at Thalia Hall. I was lucky enough to see them in the more intimate SPACE, where the intensity of his performance skyrocketed.
I have seen Charles Bradley perform at festivals, so I had an idea of what was to come when the band first stepped on stage. It’s a very traditional soul music set up. They typically play for a few minutes without Bradley, setting the tone of the set and getting the crowd ready. This was no different, the energy certainly was. The sheer closeness of the stage made everything feel so much more zealous. It was invigorating. Mike Deller, the organist and hype man, stepping away from his seat towards center stage, inflated the already electric atmosphere. His booming and excited voice filled the room, welcoming the crowd and introducing a very special man: Charles Bradley.
Bradley’s presence received an uproarious response and he seemed humbled by it. His face stretched out into a smile as a few people in front bowed down to him. “Heartaches and Pain” began with the band never quite having stopped playing since they initially started. Bradley, clad in a white suit, let his shrieks and screams erupt. He generously peppered them throughout his songs to tremendous effect. They add an immediacy to his already intense and surprisingly familiar songs. “Nobody But You” feels like a lost classic, especially with Bradley’s impromptu dancing mixed in.
After an instrumental song to allow a bit of rest and a dress change to a black and silver number, The Heavy Weight Hitter himself returned with even more energy than before. His dance moves were quick and varied, jumping from robot moves to suggestive hip thrusts to his signature soaring eagle flapping his wings. At 67 years old, Bradley has not missed a step. “Ain’t It a Sin” had Bradley at his most vigorous, combining all his skills in the song’s performance. He tossed his mic and stand to the ground only to pull them up in swift fashion and then wield it like a weapon, raising it above his head before falling to a knee. It was a powerful sight that allowed Bradley and His Extraordinaires to soak in the crowd’s approving cheers.
One of the more revealing and tender moments came with the Black Sabbath cover “Changes”. Bradley spoke of the song with the highest reverence, recalling the sadness he felt when he would hear it. His voice reached a new emotional peak with every syllable emerging with an incredible weight. Bradley took a moment in the middle of the song to tell the crowd to cherish the person they love because someday, like in the song, they could be gone. Bradley then revealed that he took something different from the ballad, relating it to the love of his mother rather than an ex. He lamented her death with sweat and tears pouring down his face.”Be Invincible. Love is the key of life,” he told the crowd before stepping off stage.
Of course this was not the end of his immaculate performance. His Extraordinaires reemerged with another instrumental before one final song from The World Champion of Soul. Donned in a light black robe, Bradley returned with “Why Is It So Hard” and finished off the set with a long monologue. He told the band to quiet down and spoke to us as his brothers and sisters, reminding the audience that no matter if we were believers or nonbelievers, we had good hearts. He went on about roses in a bouquet, using them in a metaphor for people “all over the room and all over creation”. His voice lead everyone in the room slowly towards his message, pleading with the crowd to not forget about the black rose. His Extraordinaires’ music swelled up one final time, filling SPACE with beautiful sounds as Bradley handed out red roses, the color “of the blood of your soul” that forgets the color of your skin or creed, before exiting one final time.
All photos by Julian Ramirez