Charles Bradley At The Phoenix Concert Theatre

  • Charles Bradley
    Photo: Scott Legato/Getty Images

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By Nick Krewen
Toronto

He's called "The Screaming Eagle of Soul" for a reason.

When Charles Bradley, the sexagenarian R&B performer whose career is suddenly blossoming after spending decades in obscurity, shrieks at the top of his lungs as he did frequently on May 11 at the sold-out Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, he's summoning the old-school spirit of a bygone era.

It was an era in which the Apollo Theater was the venue to experience showmen like James Brown and Jackie Wilson; when costume changes, slick choreography and some dramatic artistic license heightened a performance; and when sentiments were simpler, more direct and embraced heartache and all the pain and agony that it festers.

The Gainesville, Fla.-born, Brooklyn-based — and extremely toned and muscular — Bradley embraced all these traditions, save the rehearsed dancing. His was more free-form and improvised — spontaneous outbursts of expression that seemed more of a psychedelic '70s throwback than the practiced routine of Brown, whom Bradley regularly mimicked with his Brown tribute act Black Velvet.

In fact, there wasn't a lot at all that was smooth about Bradley: Even his raspy delivery on songs such as "Crying In The Chapel," the plaintive ballad "How Long" and the socially pleading "Why Is It So Hard" revealed a voice that has been weathered by hard times, deeply soulful as it was.

Skillfully backed by the Extraordinaires, a six-piece outfit that employed a trumpeter and a tenor saxophonist to spice up the proceedings, Bradley's unrelenting intensity was occasionally alleviated, especially during "Confusion" when he demonstrated "what confusion sounds like" by waving his hands over a theremin and delivered ghastly, distorted radio waves, while dressed in a sun-fire jumpsuit.

But there was an underlying tone of humility, refreshing in that it was obvious Bradley hasn't taken his sudden fame for granted, and will continue to work as hard as he did in Toronto to deliver classic, contemporary R&B that carries his own stamp of genuine passion.

He's the real deal.

Set List (partial):

Instrumental intro (the Extraordinaires)
"Summer In The City" (Lovin' Spoonful cover)
"Crying In The Chapel"
"Love Bug Blues"
"The World (Is Going Up In Flames)"
"Golden Rule"
"Trouble In The Land"
"Runaway" (Del Shannon cover)
"No Time For Dreaming"
"How Long"
"Victim Of Love"
"Strictly Reserved For You"
"Confusion"
"Why Is It So Hard?"

Encore:
"You Put The Flame On It"

To catch Charles Bradley in a city near you, click here for tour dates.

(Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based journalist who has written for The Toronto StarTV GuideBillboardCountry Music and was a consultant for the National Film Board's music industry documentary Dream Machine.)

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