Last year, Charles Bradley played two sold out nights in Chicago at some of the most beautiful venues in the city: the second at Thalia Hall and the first, which I had the pleasure of reviewing, at Evanston SPACE. These shows highlighted Bradley’s amazing showmanship, emotive delivery, and his endless charisma that make any room he is in light up with joy.
Just a few months later, Bradley was forced to cancel shows in order to go into treatment for stomach cancer. It was a serious blow to the modern soul community, another legendary Daptone performer having to face such a tough battle. “I will fight through this like I’ve fought through the many other obstacles in my life,” he wrote in his letter to fans, pledging that he would return to see our beautiful faces once again. These words couldn’t have been truer as the new year brought announcements a bundle of tour dates, including one back in Chicago’s wonderful House Of Vans.
House of Vans, which opened earlier this year, has been putting on some of the most interesting lineups in the city and they all have been completely free to attend. It’s the sort of venue you wish more of existed in the city. Originally the show had billed Seun Kuti and his band, but they were unable to attend. Local(ish) hip-hop group The Cool Kids, helmed by Chuck Inglish and Sir Michael Rocks, came to the rescue and took the opening spot.
The duo is the epitome of an old school hip-hop group. They rushed to the stage with all the energy you could want from a group, blasting through bars quickly and flawlessly. Its was the kind of performance you can tell that they were having as much fun as the audience was, jumping around to the invigorating beats and flows that rival the beat rappers. They played new songs which got the crowd incredibly excited. The Cool Kids had more or less parted ways in recent years, so seeing them reunite here and at Empty Bottle last month with new tracks bodes well for the future of hip-hop.
When it came time for Charles Bradley and His Extraordinarines, I’ll admit I was slightly nervous. I knew what to expect from this amazing contingent; their set up is a throwback to soul shows of yesteryear where every element of the show is as important as its star. But given Bradley’s battle, I feared a change. However, I would soon be proven wrong.
As expected, His Extraodrinaires came out and performed an instrumental song to set the tone. The band is made up of some of the best musicians Daptone has to offer and got the crowd excited. Mike Deller, the band’s organist and foremost hype man, came to the edge of the stage to introduced Bradley with all the enthusiasm you could hope for. As Bradley came to the stage, dressed in a black suit, I started to tear up. The man, who struggled for so much of his life and just beat cancer, looked no different than he did a year before. He came to the mic with the biggest and brightest smile on his face, received by an enormous and grateful crowd.
The Screaming Eagle of Soul was like a phoenix reborn. “Changes for the World” got things started and they really never stopped. Bradley’s voice still held all the emotion and immediacy that his songs require. All the pain, love, understanding, and every other emotion you could possibly think of was imbued in his voice. Moments in to the song, Bradley let loose his dance moves, which were as expressive as ever and burst out from him with the same exuberance I had seen in him the previous year.
During “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)”, Bradley lifted his mic stand high above his head before falling to his knees, stabbing the mic down towards his sequin coat. This is the energy that permeated through the night and never let up. The man has not lost a step and the House of Vans crowd was treated to an amazing soul show that is becoming rarer and rarer.
Bradley closed out his time much like he has been doing the past couple years. “Changes”, the Black Sabbath cover that Bradley transforms from a breakup rock ballad into an soulful mourn of the loss his mother, held an even heavier tone. Even his consistent urge for unity, relating mankind to roses and reminding everyone that we’re all the same, felt more urgent. More necessary. He tossed those red roses into the audience, giving a lucky few a beautiful memento to carry home, before jumping headlong into “Fool For You.” This was the Charles Bradley I remembered. This was the Charles Bradley I hope is able to continue spreading joy to all our beautiful faces.