Charles Bradley's borrowed soul

20:18, Feb 25 2014

On Saturday night I reviewed Charles Bradley's show as part of the New Zealand Festival. I've struggled with Bradley's sound on record - his voice is busted. He can't sing. He shouts. It's a nice story of course, guy spends his whole life working hard, struggling to overcome poverty, toiling away, honing his James Brown act and then he gets "discovered". He's nearing pensioner-age when he is given the platform - sharp band behind him, albums to flog, out on the road and now visiting the world.

Audiences love that kind of a story. I liked the documentary about Charles Bradley I just couldn't tell you that the show was good. The band wasn't terrible - but it wasn't great. The horns were off, the guitarists superfluous, the rhythm section was pretty kick-ass though. I didn't rave about them in the review, more space and I would have given them the shout-out they deserved.

But, you have to wonder if the geeky white-guy guilt plays a part in the way this music is retrospectively celebrated and heard. In a way it was a bit like the Rodriguez debacle from last year all over again.

Hey, I kinda liked that doco about Rodriguez too, nice bit of creative storytelling, I enjoyed having a chat with Rodriguez, I love that Cold Fact album so much. Well, I did. I don't much feel like listening to it these days. That happens. It's been done to death now in the wake of the mild mania that greeted the film, the reissues, the tour, the "discovery" of Rodriguez.

The audience there was applauding the storyline. The back-story. That's how I saw it - and heard it. And I reckon it was the same, really, with Charles Bradley.

Still, plenty of people seemed to love the gig, other reviewers raved. And that's all fair enough. I'm not trying to be right. Just making sure that I write. And I have to write the truth of the situation as I see and hear it. I can't write down what you heard. I can't describe it as just how you'd like it to be - unless you agree with me. Because I'm there to write down the show that I experienced. Just as any other reviewer is there to tell it how she or he sees and hears it.

This much should be obvious. Right? Right? This is 101.

How is it that we have to agree with everything to like it? That a piece of writing has to "get it right" - can't we just take on a range of ideas and opinions, maybe form our own and then inform that further by taking on the views of others. Positive reviews are raved about by fans who enjoyed the show - even if the writing is poor. Critical reviews - perceived "negative" reviews - are clearly mean-spirited and couldn't possibly be offering any sort of truth, or even any sort of opinion, beyond a bitter rant from someone who clearly wishes they were the one on the stage. I mean, come on, that's obvious.

I sincerely wanted to like the Charles Bradley show - of course I did. I don't actually head out of the house in the hope of seeing a car-crash of a show - well, alright, one time I totally did. But, I really want every show to be great. I may not have paid to get in but I'm paying with my time. I do have other things I could be doing - so I'm hopeful that the show will be enjoyable.

But I can't get excited about a show that doesn't work without the back-story. A person is entitled to their opinion that Charles Bradley is some sort of "real deal", sure. There were probably audience members at the arts festival shows he performed over the weekend who can tell stories of being dragged along and not knowing anything about the artist and then being blown away. They're not wrong. Of course they're not. That's their truth. That's their story. And they might have arrived at that without knowing Bradley's story.

But they are not the reason the shows were sold out - for the shows to sell well it relied on people to suck up the story, to want to show some appreciation for a guy who, apparently, now deserves our support and praise.

I'm a geeky white guy too - absolutely. I am not cool, not remotely funky, but I reckon this white person guilt has a fair bit to answer for. I can think of so many artists more deserving of your time and money than Charles Bradley. His voice is gone. His moves are hackneyed, his soul is borrowed. And his funk is flat.

I couldn't make sense of The Listener's review - beyond the fact that someone there quite likes Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Another review suggested that back-stories weren't important, right before detailing Bradley's and pointing to it being key in the appreciation of him, this senior artist.

What's wrong with just saying that someone who cannot sing - someone who screams and shouts (and not in a way that's at all nice, or musical) is the owner of a broken voice and a borrowed act?  Because any other story is just part of the back-story, part of the marketing, part of the manufactured magic, part of the lie that helped to sell an event to an audience full of us whiteys, all clapping along at the man who was finally having his day.

Are you a sucker for a good (or bad) musical back-story? And have you been sucked in only to realise, an album or tour later, that there really wasn't all that much beyond the story selling it? And anyone else disappointed, underwhelmed, disgusted by Charles Bradley either at the show/s or on record? I feel like I might be alone here. I'm okay with that. But I can't help but be a bit curious...

Postscript: I saw Madeliene Peyroux as part of the festival over the weekend too - you can click here to read the review

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