Charles Bradley Apollo Theater 5/16/13
Better Than: A pipe dream come true, and on The Apollo’s storied stage, no less.
When Charles Bradley and I met up at Daptone Records to discuss the release of his sophomore album Victim of Love back in March, his headlining show at The Apollo was a prominent topic of conversation, though much of the Apollo talk never made it to print. Was his mom coming to the show? You bet. Was it completely and totally insane to him that he’d be playing a sold-out show on the same stage he saw James Brown shake and scream all over half a century ago, a moment directly responsible for Bradley’s life-long musical pursuit? Uh, yes. What was he planning on wearing? “I gotta get somethin’ jazzy, home-y, spiritual, loving—I want everything in that outfit.”
He did a few times over. Bradley rocked not one but three sequined and set-for-dancing jumpsuits over the course of the night.
I’ve seen Charles three times now—last summer at the Newport Folk Festival, a surprise release day set to celebrate Victim of Love last month at Piano’s and the show last night—and the Apollo set was, as expected, a bottomless display of artistry, gratitude and boundless enthusiasm from the 64-year-old soul singer. Bradley danced in ways I’d never seen him, plunging into splits and gyrating in directions that’d make the surliest bouncer blush. The mic stand was a veritable opponent and cherished companion at various points, serving as the anchor for Bradley as his voice indefatigably scaled the swells of “Strictly Reserved” and the “The World (Is Going Up In Flames.)” He cradled it at points, its metallic surface serving as the stand-in for a lover or a friend he never thought he’d have the chance to see again. He hoisted that stand above his shoulder as his weight to bear and twirled it on its base, bringing himself to the floor beneath it before swiveling and showing it who’s boss. Along with his trademark wing-flapping (he is “the Screaming Eagle of Soul,” after all) on the vamp, Bradley kept taking to his knee and hoisting his arms above his head into a heart, holding his hands just so for a minute while the crowd at The Apollo blew kisses and screamed and cried and got all melty in the feelings department.
Like his idol James Brown before him, Bradley realized his life’s mission and insurmountable potential on The Apollo’s stage, taking in the love he received from the audience like oxygen and giving it back on the double. And like his idol, Bradley destroyed us with every ballad and revived us with every hip-check, turning the keys to our unsuspecting hearts and reassuring with every passing measure that he would sing his way through the strife, and that we would get through this together. To see this all go down on the historic Apollo stage brings it to another level entirely, as Bradley never in a million years thought he’d be there beyond Amateur Night (which didn’t go so well for him when he tried his hand at it as a James Brown impersonator 15 years ago). Thankfully, his Apollo debut—his real one, with his name on the marquee and everything—was flawlessly executed, and had James Brown been there, I’d like to think The Godfather of Soul would embrace his disciple as the first few rows eagerly did.
Critical Bias: As I previously mentioned, I’ve seen Bradley before and have had the pleasure of speaking with him about his incredible story, so yeah—I love the dude and he can do no wrong in my eyes, pretty much. That said, a great show is a great show, and Bradley’s vocal prowess is undeniable.
Also, can we talk about the Menahan Street Band for a minute? Because as wonderful as Bradley is, Jesus CHRIST those guys are incredible. Tip o’ the hat to you, Tom Brenneck, and the arsenal of talent you’ve assembled to write and arrange some of the most insatiably addictive songs I’ve ever heard. (And, that “Summer in the City” lead-in? Awesome. And apropos, as it was a hot, beautiful night to walk down 125th, too.)
Overheard: “YOU WANNA GO TO CHURCH, APOLLO?!” Bradley’s a spiritual man—pretty sure “spiritual” is his favorite adjective, actually—and his sermon is pulled from The Gospel of Love. Somewhere in between “Love Bug Blues” and “You Put The Flame On It,” Bradley mustered up his inner preacher, howling and growling and raising his arms up in thanks before launching into another wail at the top of his register. At various points throughout the night Bradley would break and plead with his audience to put love before everything else, to stop fighting with each other because we’re “killing the world.” I haven’t been to church since receiving my First Communion at the age of 8, but Bradley’s kind of church? That’s a spiritual journey I can get behind.
Random Notebook Dump: HUGGING TIIIIIIME x 2: So, Bradley’s big on leaping into the crowd and running down the first few rows to hug as many concert-goers as he can. This puts Tom Brenneck and the rest of the Extraordinaires/Menahan Street Band in a bit of a bind as they’re vamping like crazy while Bradley hugs and hugs and hugs until he’s exhausted or someone from production runs out and brings him back. Last night, someone had to hook arms with Bradley and literally pull him from his adoring public as the Menahan Street Band finished up the set just before the encore, and that’s probably for the best as everyone was booking it from their seats to the aisles in the hopes of catching Bradley in a big, sweaty, sequined bear hug.