All words: Andy Johnson
All photos: Chris Chen
As the 64-year-old “Screaming Eagle of Soul” took the stage at the 9:30 Club Thursday night, Charles Bradley’s eyes glistened as he examined the crowd. “Y’all my homies!” he yelled before kicking into one of his many soul-revivalist anthems off his debut record No Time For Dreaming.
Yes, a debut record for a sexagenarian.
Ever since he saw James Brown at the Apollo as a child, Bradley knew he wanted to be an entertainer. And while it has taken a long time to finally get recognized – he performed as a James Brown impersonator for years – it wasn’t until a meeting with Gabriel Roth, co-founder of Daptone Records, that Bradley finally got a chance to drop the doppelganger act and start writing songs of his own.
In the spirit of the great soul songs of yore, Bradley’s lyrics touch on the difficulties of love and misery. Backed by six-piece The Extraordinaires, he howled “Don’t tell me how to live my life / When you never felt the pain” on “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” and reminded us that life is full of “Heartaches And Pain,” no matter your age.
A surprise cover of Neil Young’s famous “Heart of Gold” won the crowd over as Bradley crooned “And I’m getting old / Keeps me searching / for a heart of gold.” For a man of his age, Bradley was spry. After donning a scorpion jumpsuit (not too unlike Mr. Gosling in Drive), I recall Bradley running around the stage, doing the splits during one breakdown, and even walked among the crowd at the end of the set. He may have warned Washington that “This Love Ain’t Big Enough For The Two Of Us,” but this was not true, as there was plenty of love to go around this evening.
The headlining act of the night was another artist on the Daptone label, The Budos Band. Hailing from Staten Island, these men generate instrumental, ‘70s-inspired funky jams that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in any of the great blaxploitation classics. I feel that funk is one of the purest expressions in popular music, a sound that has yet to be muddled by contemporary audio trickery. (It doesn’t hurt that my first concert as a teenager was Parliament Funkadelic in Virginia Beach). When seeing a truly superb funk band that’s locked in, the groove going and the people working (twerking, as the common man might say), it doesn’t get much better.
Their self-description of “afro-soul” is a proper summary of their sound. The nine men, featuring a dedicated baritone saxophonist, bongoist and a fellow who played the shekere (shekerist?), played a medley of hits from their three self-titled records. I admit it’s bit difficult to tell each song apart – they are all instrumentals – but there was no mistaking “Black Venom”, the most identifiable song off The Budos Band III aka The Cobra Album. The opening salvo of saxophones off “Rite of the Ancients” was also warmly-received, given the pungent cloud of marijuana that billowed through the 9:30 Club.
They even played an excellent new song, “Seizure” off their forthcoming album which I can only assume will be titled The Budos Band IV. Because their tunes sound alike, it’s impressive that the band can create material that sounds fresh and remain in line with their discography.
After two hours of sweat-inducing funk (FYI, it never got funky enough for me), the group announced that Charles Bradley & The Extraordinaires were returning to the stage for an encore. The Screaming Eagle came back out in his fly threads to sing “Why Is It So Hard (To Make It In America?)” After dancing their butts off, the thinning crowd was given some #realtalk by the Screaming Eagle as he recounted his biography: “I was born in Gainesville, Florida / I traveled far and wide / and then I moved to Brooklyn, New York / had hard times but somehow… I hold on.”
I believe the reason why Bradley finally found success after decades of never-wasness is that his theme of “We need to make a change / In America” is as necessary now as it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. If after years of waiting, a 64-year-old soul singer can achieve his dream of doing the splits before a crowd of drunk-and-high Washingtonians, it’s a lesson to us all.