Thank you, Arcade Fire
The first time I saw Charles Bradley was at Primavera Sound in Barcelona in 2014. As people flocked in the tens of thousands to watch Arcade Fire, a small cluster of friends and I wandered aimlessly for an alternative when we walked past the stage Bradley was playing on. I heard this yelp that cut through me like a jolt of electricity. Turning to the stage I saw an elderly man in a jumpsuit with a little potbelly, spinning and dancing and gyrating. His band were flush-tight, locked into a soul-pop groove, all dancing bass lines and tooting brass as Bradley unleashed flooring vocal take after flooring vocal take. It was like watching someone pull out every single ounce of themself until there was nothing left to give. It was an exorcism of sorts, yet one you could dance to.
This wasn’t a one-off special performance however. This was the go-to performance mentality for Bradley. I would see him another three or four times over the next couple of years and it was the same every time. He would be the artist I would drag people to see at festivals regardless of their tastes. His records were great, and some tracks were knock-you-on-your-arse brilliant, but nothing could capture the magic, guts and raging emotion of his live performances. He was a furiously boiling pan of torment that was always ready to boil over, and his performances were such a furious catharsis of melancholy and beauty that they never lost their potency – he was like a sadness well that refilled itself.
Taking your misery and dancing to it
Bradley had built up a lifetime of so much pain, death and anguish that he could endlessly tap into it night after night and deliver it with nuance, blending joy and despair. Like all the best soul music it was taking your misery and dancing to it. I cried at every single one of his shows. He was capable of reaching into something so deep inside of himself – or perhaps his emotion was always so close to the surface – even just to watch him felt like a purge of sorts; a man shedding something, stripping away a layer. Even when covering Black Sabbath’s ‘Changes’ he was able to stamp his own story to it so firmly that when he would rip open his heart and lungs to scream “I’m going through changes” every word felt like it belonged to him.
The opening lines of “I feel unhappy, I feel so sad/ I’ve lost the best friend that I ever had/ She was my woman/ I loved her so” were almost predestined to be sung by Bradley, especially so shortly after the death of his mother, who had been his literal best friend. Look at clips of him performing that song, pick any from across a few years from anywhere in the world, and he never performed that song in any way other than looking like he was about to burst. Never so much as a glimpse of insouciance crept into his delivery.
Seeing him live became like being part of a club. If you met someone who had also seen him you’d immediately be able to communicate the feeling without words, like a sly wink or intricate handshake between a select few. Everybody I took to a show was floored. I remember dragging along someone who I had just met at SXSW in 2016, who worked at Warp Records and ran his own grime label (hardly an artists sketch of your typical fan of overly-intense and emotional classic soul). Yet I watched him look on, glide into the groove with the band and saw the silence wash over him. His jaw began to sag and droop before dropping entirely when Bradley would hit one of those big lung-busting moments.
You’d then witness the connection people would have with the still palpable sense of suffering that Bradley possessed during songs such as ‘Heartache and Pain’ when he would cry “your brother is gone” as he retold the story of coming home to find the murder scene of his own brother.