By Steve Scheibal
There was a time when listening to a singer like Charles Bradley was itself a statement, an act of protest against literal and figurative armies massed just off the record.
As Wednesday night’s largely white, affluent-looking crowd made clear, the stakes for Bradley’s South by Southwest-kickoff set at Stubb’s were considerably lower.
Which is fine. Sometimes a fantastic, electric show is just a fantastic, electric show. But it’s hard not to feel a little confounded, taking in a show that’s so removed from the historical context that itself demonstrates the enormity of Bradley’s talent.
When he sings live, Bradley invokes the sweet soul history into which he’s sung himself — he stacks up well against his craft’s masters. A single song swings from soaringly imploring highs to mournfully clear and quiet lows (pretty much all of them do, actually). His howl is timeless. It all would slide easily into a 60s war protest.
But this isn’t the 60s, and Bradley isn’t that kind of singer. His story — from homelessness, to discovery by a retro soul label executive, to about as much success as modern music offers great soul singers — is such a part of his work that even his official festival bio mentions it. That’s the story his songs tell.
And why not? It’s an inspiring tale. It’s great feeling good for the guy with the booming, piercing voice as he shimmies and wails for a bopping, happy crowd.
At the same time, it’s very much about Bradley. The Extraordinaires, the talented band that backs him, ably keeps his canvas primed without getting any paint on it. No Maceo Parkers here.
When his progenitors sang that there was a riot going on, it was entirely possible that there actually was a riot going on right then. Just so, when Bradley closed his set repeating the refrain, "I’m going through changes," he’d left very little reason to doubt it.
Charles Bradley is a great soul singer, one of the best that any of us will ever see. Maybe it’s wrong to expect anything more than that, but it’s only because that’s what we were taught.