Charles Bradley Bared His Soul at The Fillmore

Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires
The Fillmore
May 17, 2016

Charles Bradley may not look like a priest, but on Tuesday night at the Fillmore, he delivered a sermon for the ages.

He took the stage dressed in sharp red pants and a sparkling black shirt, the material split open to reveal his chest and the incredible heart beating wildly within.

“I promise I’m going to give you my best tonight,” he said.

Nothing has come easy for the 67 year-old soul singer, but it is that very pain and suffering that gives his guttural wails such beauty. Bradley may be well past the qualifying age for an AARP card, but his stage show was filled with twirls, gyrations, and the sultry sexiness of a man on a mission. Watching him storm the stage and fill the ballroom of The Fillmore with the unfiltered power of his voice was to be transported back in time to the age of the showman, when figures like James Brown held court only with a jab of their hips and the urgency of their song.

But Charles Bradley is done being in the shadow of Brown, a man he spent many years impersonating under the name Black Velvet. This is his show now, and no comparisons are required.

[jump] Given Bradley’s age, it made sense that the show was segmented with instrumental work from his backing band, a talented group dubbed The Extraordinaires that kept up the funk and the pace throughout the evening. In true soul man fashion, it took ravenous applause from the crowd to summon Bradley after the band settled in, and again midway through the show he left until his return was demanded. During that break, he made a costume change, reemerging on stage in a silk robe and flowing garments, tossing garments to the floor as he worked up a sweat.

The set list focused evenly on Bradley’s three releases: 2011’s No Time for Dreaming, 2013’s Victim of Love, and 2016's Changes. Each record is both contemporary and timeless, mining the struggles of today with a sound that captures the golden era of soul music from the 1960s and 1970s.

Performing “No Time for Dreaming,” Bradley subtly referenced the time he spent performing as Brown, unable to share his own music with the world. “No time for dreaming,” he wailed, “gotta get on up and do my thing.” Singing “You Put the Flame on It,” the crowd could feel his desperation to be loved as he howled, “When life was so dark, you put the light on me.”

Bradley also spoke often to the crowd, sharing that he spent nearly twenty years living in San Francisco from the late '70s to early '90s. “San Francisco, I love your beautiful city,” he said, staring out at the crowd with wide eyes that have seen some truly horrible things, “but did you love me?”

The evening’s denouement came on the final song of the set, Bradley’s otherworldly cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes.” Slowing the song to a crawl, Bradley imbued the words with a meaning that Ozzy and company surely never intended.

In the press leading up to the release of Changes, Bradley spoke of how the song became a eulogy to his late mother, a woman he initially resented, but late in life came to have a relationship with. Hearing the song in this context, lines like “It took so long to realize / That I can still hear her last goodbyes” gain a melancholic potency that reduced much of The Fillmore audience to tears.

As The Extraordinares continued the song behind him, Bradley addressed his fans again, begging them to let go of hate and live a life of love and honesty.

“We have wants and needs in this world,” he said, “but if you can’t get what you want from your heart, you don’t it.”

A stage technician brought Bradley a bouquet of red roses, which he gave to the audience, flinging blooms deep into the crowd with the smile of an artist who has finally found his people. Then he departed, and the lights went up, but something incredible happened.

No one left.

The PA system started up with its “time to leave” music, but no one budged, stomping their feet, begging for more, desperate to share another few minutes with a holy man who knows music can truly be a higher power.

Ten minutes passed before someone came to out to adjust a microphone, tipping off the masses that their cries had been heard. When Bradley reemerged, to close out the evening with a forceful rendition of “Why Is It So Hard,” it was one last gift from a man who truly made good on his promise: he gave us his best.

In truth, he has been all along. We just finally got smart enough to listen.

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