Rain fell all day long, leaving the ground on Brown’s Island a soupy wreck, and when Mrs. YHT and I finally walked across the pedestrian bridge onto Brown’s Island — we’d spent the preceding half hour in the car, delaying our inevitable drenching — I did not expect that the show would actually happen. The original start time had lapsed and the entrance fee had been waived, yet I didn’t see a single spectating soul until the front edge of the stage was in view. There, a dozen or so umbrellas were huddled, the people under them watching Charles Bradley’s backing band — in this context you’d call them Bradley’s “Extraordinaires,” but without Bradley they’re known as Menahan Street Band — tune up. (I imagined that the band was having their own version of the “Is this thing actually going to happen?” conversation.)
Some friends had taken refuge under an unused radio station canopy across from the beer truck, and we joined them and learned that (good news) people were being allowed backstage, but (bad news) Bradley was rumored to be held up in traffic. We didn’t go backstage, but amazingly, just a short time later, we heard Bradley’s Extraordinaires playing what sounded like organized notes, and a few instrumental numbers later (“Summer In The City” being one) there he was. The Victim of Love. The Original Black Swan. The One and Only Screaming Eagle of Soul. (His extended intro, voiced by the band’s keys player, was a show unto itself. It felt more like a wrestling introduction, like how Paul Bettany introduced Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale.)
The rest of the evening was pure magic. The band sounded great, Bradley’s voice was every bit the wonder I’d hoped it would be, and the small group of us that crowded the gravely area near the stage made enough noise for an audience 10 times our size. And while the music was outstanding (the rendition of “Confusion” embedded above was a personal favorite), what Bradley did between songs was most memorable.
I’d read before the show that his road to success in the music business was… bumpy, to put it mildly. I also saw in Sounds of RVA’s wonderful profile of Bradley that he has a deeply humble and refreshingly circumspect outlook on that success. But reading about these things is different from experiencing them for yourself, and if there was ever a test of a performer’s humility, this show, with its minuscule crowd and dismal weather conditions, was it. But Bradley’s warmth overpowered the circumstances, his between-song banter showering us with thanks, love, and assurances that “If there’s one person out here, I’m gonna give you a show.” It all fit perfectly with the idea of him I’d formed in my head, and as the show neared its end, that cognitive agreement began to transform into a happy lump in the back of my throat.
Watching happiness in motion is powerful. There’s always a chance that smiles mask something darker, but it’s hard to avoid getting sucked in to a story like Bradley’s, especially when he hops down off the stage and gives giant, soaking-wet, 10-second hugs to the entire front row. That really happened. (Quick point of clarification — the wetness was an equal exchange. We were wet from the rain, he was just as wet from sweating his way through a truly impassioned performance.) I was right there, watching the look on his face and the looks on the hug recipients’ faces. It was love. There’s no other word for it. Call me sentimental or naive, but I have a hard time believing that someone could spread genuine love that freely without having found a powerful, hard-earned happiness within him/herself.
That’s what I took away from Friday’s beautiful mess of a show. Charles Bradley has the answer, and I intend to keep listening to his songs so that next time it rains — literally or figuratively — I can be the one giving out 10-second hugs to strangers. Check out “Confusion” above, “Strictly Reserved For You” below, and click here to buy his outstanding recent album, Victim of Love, from iTunes.
See you at tonight’s Kishi Bashi show!