Filing into the Music Hall of Williamsburg last night to see Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires, amidst the sounds of chatting friends and classic soul music on the PA, there was no way we could know what we were in for. We were about to see one of the most emotionally moving shows imaginable. We were about to see something special.
As the crowd packed in, we made our way towards the front and staked our place about 20 feet back from center stage. The opening band came out to a smattering of applause. The Jay Vons, a 4-piece outfit whose sound is certainly bigger than it looks, began to perform. Their soulful playing filled the room, from the screaming organ sounds and thumping kick drum to the expertly played guitar and guttural vocals. Their set was full of fun and energy, and they were joined by the Extraordinaires' horn section for the last tune.
After the set change, Charles Bradley's band took the stage, locking into a solid groove before the keyboard player gave a fabulous and enthusiastic introduction to The Screamin' Eagle of Soul. Bradley stormed out on stage in a purple jumpsuit and grabbed the mic. His powerful voice sliced through the crowd and gave me goosebumps as he strutted about the stage. The first song came to a close and the crowd roared as they broke into the next tune.
The mood changed toward the end of the next song, though. The band played a little softer as Charles said, "I promised you a show." The room got quiet as he tearfully confessed that his mother passed away that very morning. "I lost my mama this morning, but I promised you a show." We were stunned. He talked about the loss and the pain and asked for a moment of silence. Someone shouted, "We love you, Charles!" He waited a few more beats and said, "I love you, too."
From that point on, the show was different. Charles' songs about love tore through us and we felt everything he felt. His strength and showmanship never let up and he sang through another several songs before taking a break.
He came back -- in a black jumpsuit this time -- and finished out the set, throwing the mic around and dancing like someone 30 years younger. The band left the stage and the house music clicked on, which usually means that there will be no encore, but the audience wouldn't have it. Excited cheers and stomps drew the Extraordinaires back out for a few more. They broke into "Victim of Love," the title track from Bradley's most recent record, and everyone who knew the words sang along.
The last song of the night, "Why Is It So Hard," is an autobiographical tune about the hard times in his life, and his mournful howls brought the crowd to the verge of tears. He stopped halfway though and said, "I want to tell everyone in the house: If you've got a mother, you better go home and tell her that you love her. And if you've got a good father, you better go home and tell him that you love him, too. Because when you lose your mama -- God -- it seems like you're walkin' alone."
The hurt was audible in his voice as he finished his speech and walked offstage. The Extraordinaires played out the rest of the song and said goodnight.
Charles Bradley in concert last night was the most emotionally powerful display of music I have ever seen. The happiness and deep catharsis of the songs were unlike anything I've ever seen, able to take a tragedy and turn it into an absolute outpouring of love. Truly, that is what soul music is all about.