Concert Review: Charles Bradley and the Extraordinaires — Asheville NC, April 18 2013

There exists a certain, special sort of concert. And in my experience, it’s extremely rare: the sort of show in which I find myself realizing a mere three, two or even one song into the set that this is an artist I don’t ever want to miss. On those exceedingly uncommon instances, I tell myself, “whenever this act returns here – or even close by – I will make a studied effort to come out to the show.”

That’s a very high standard. There are plenty of musical artists whose work I treasure, and whose live performances are fantastic. But what I’m describing here is something that transcends even that level of greatness. I’m talking about acts that are so powerful – so able to connect emotionally with their audience – that the result is a singular experience. It’s happened only a handful of times for me in recent years: Swedish fokrockpsych group Dungen did it for me; so did King Khan and the Shrines. And now Charles Bradley and the Extraordinaires can be added to that list of amazing shows.

Generally for me, it’s quite difficult to write a show review the morning after the concert; at that point I am still too close to the event. My thoughts haven’t settled, crystallized. And if the show went late, I might be tired as well. So in nearly all cases, I hold off several days before putting my thoughts down in words. But after last night’s show, I don’t feel that I can wait.

It’s not as if Bradley needs my help. One of those “overnight sensations” who had in actuality been toiling in obscurity (and near poverty) for decades, Charles Bradley now has two highly-rated and successful full length albums behind him (2011’s No Time for Dreaming and the brand-new Victim of Love), and he has toured incessantly to promote both. Though in hid mid-60s, Bradley is a consummate, athletic showman: on every song, he puts his heart, voice and body into the performance. In the hands of a lesser artist, his onstage moves and persona would be laughable shtick; described in words, his jumps, splits, mic stand acrobatics and endless gesticulations might seem silly and over the top. But in person, they’re nothing of the kind; few artists are so “real” onstage.

The band really cooks, too. In a clear nod to the approach employed by the mid-60s Stax/Volt Revue (Booker T & the MGs with the Mar-Keys horn section, backing a succession of Stax vocalists), the Extraordinaires simply ripped it up. Each set began with a few instrumental pieces that set the scene, ratcheting up the excitement in anticipation of Bradley’s stage entrance. Referring to these instrumental introductions, I commented to a friend, “I’d buy an album of this music.” Despite the fact that the band was so impressively tight and forceful, their work – whether it be the trumpet-and-sax duo who sounded like six players, or the lead guitarist with his bag of tricks that included judicious, intelligent and exciting use of fuzztone and wah-wah – never competed with Bradley’s voice or visual presence. The band was truly in service of the songs.

Bradley gave it everything he had, from the moment he came onstage – introduced in a crowd-fluffing showman-style by his keyboardist – until his exit, after which he implemented a costume change. His set-opening outfit was a stylish suit, but his emotive performance quickly necessitated a jacket removal. By the midpoint of that first set, Bradley was drenched in sweat.

When he returned, he was resplendent in a red jumpsuit and jacket; the back of the jacket was emblazoned with a large eagle motif, signifying his reputation as the Screaming Eagle of Soul. On this night – as on every other, I’m told – Charles Bradley earned that label. Conjuring the very best of American soul music, southern variety, Bradley evoked memories of Wilson Pickett, James Brown and Otis Redding. But – and this is part of the key to his appeal – in no case did he ape any of those greats, and notably, he and the Extraordinaires didn’t cover any of their material. But then Bradley’s original songs – many penned in collaboration with Thomas Brenneck (his album producer and a member of The Budos Band) – are strong enough that he needn’t mine the catalogs of other artists.

Very good on record but simply peerless onstage, Charles Bradley must been seen and heard live onstage. Highly recommended not only to soul music fans, but to anyone and everyone who appreciates good music and an emotionally resonant concert experience. If you see him the next time he rolls though Asheville NC, I’ll be in the crowd, too.

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