Ian Beattie: Music for the Austerity Era
Beattie profiles the life and sounds of soul singer Charles Bradley @ Maisonneuve. On a recent evening, while Portugal erupted in marches, rioters torched Athens and Occupy Oakland clashed with police, Charles Bradley stood in the exposed-brick basement of Montreal’s Corona Theatre, ironing his suits and listening to the Marvelettes. He was due onstage in an hour.
Over the past few years, the sixty-four-year-old Bradley has built a life for himself writing songs, touring and recording for the Brooklyn-based soul-revivalist label Daptone. This started in earnest in 2010, when Daptone’s Tommy Brenneck convinced Bradley to enter the studio and, after a lifetime as a James Brown cover artist, record his own material. The result was the twelve-song album No Time for Dreaming. It was only named number forty on Mojo’s fifty best albums of 2011, and it never got close to topping the charts. In the long run, however, it may be one of the most interesting cultural documents last year had to offer.
Musically, No Time doesn’t stray too far from what you would expect from Daptone, which had its first major success with the howling, strutting Sharon Jones. (Like Bradley, Jones is an experienced singer who recorded her first album late in life, when she was almost fifty years old.) The Daptone people are staunch reactionaries; they have perfected that trick of the ear where you think a recently released album was actually recorded in the sixties. Although the label has released albums from a range of genres, Bradley’s and Jones’ music hearkens back to the gritty, less commercial branch of soul known as Southern soul, always a heartbeat or chord change away from the blues. Onstage, Bradley wears a constant expression of pain—real, physical pain, as if his leg is slowly being broken. He uses his James Brown experience well, twirling, strutting, throwing the mic, falling to his knees. He takes tremendous risks with his guttural voice, tossing it around the octaves with such abandon that he moves perilously close to slipping out of tune.
From a critic’s perspective, then, Bradley is a man out of time. When he moves, his limbs don’t swing freely but along predetermined axes, the joints stiffened with age. “I do believe my music belongs to yesterday and today,” he told me. “All life is doing is repeating itself over and over and over again. Soul never died.” Bradley has little to say about contemporary pop—when one interviewer tried to prod him into a conversation about hip-hop, he was met with awkward silence, something very rare with the talkative Bradley. But this indifference is forgivable considering the roughness of his life over the last three decades. “I been searching—I been on my own, taking care of myself ever since I was fourteen years old,” he said. “I done lived on the streets, buses, anywhere—a place to get out on the cold days, find a place to live at, you name it, I’ve been there.”