It was another funky Friday night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, as singer Charles Bradley & The Menahan Street Band opened for Mr. Lee Fields. Both men are recording artists associated with the Daptone family—home of Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings and purveyors of a cottage industry of soul revivalists catering to young people eager to dance. And dance they did. The 62-year old Bradley has been getting a lot of attention lately, thanks to a some acclaimed performances down in Austin at SXSW and an engaging, better-late-than-never debut album, No Time For Dreaming.
Bradley’s lifelong personal/professional struggles and recent emergence into the limelight seem to be the story here, but it was his heartfelt, soulful performances that captured the imagination of the supportive Brooklyn crowd. Opening with an emphatic take on the stirring, biographical “Heartaches And Pain,” Bradley was clearly touched by the loving enthusiasm of his audience, thanking them profusely and exclaiming his love for one and all. Over the course of Bradley’s short set, the Menahan Street Band, replete with a full horn section and backup singers, played with passionate precision, building its dramatic sound while Bradley swiveled his hips and dropped to his knees like an aging James Brown.
Bradley’s angst-ridden and philosophical laments are certainly universal enough for the 21st century, and with songs like “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” and the LP’s title track, he connected with his audience on a truly visceral level. Bradley even pulled off an earnest mid-tempo cover of Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold,” with his Brooklyn-based guitarist/producer Thomas Brenneck sounding (to these ears) like Steve Cropper throughout.
Bradley left everything he had out on the stage in about 45 minutes and was promptly relieved by headliner Fields, with the Menahan Street Band staying put and subbing for Fields’ usual backing group, the Expressions. Looking like a pint-sized Lou Rawls, veteran singer Fields ably continued the retro-exploration into Daptone’s dictionary of journeyman soul. As with Bradley, Fields is an older fellow influenced by the torchy, balladic nature of artists like James Brown and Bobby Womack as well as Al Green and the Hi Records crew. Performing songs from recent album My World, Fields was a consummate showman, but he was still upstaged by new hometown hero Bradley.
Together, Bradley, Fields and the Menahan Street Band made for a tidy little soul revue. Although the energy level of the entire evening stayed somewhere in the middle range, the personal intensity of these fine performers was totally off the scale. After the show, you could see Bradley quietly crying, sincerely thankful for his chance to perform and eagerly receiving adoration from his newfound fans.
So, let’s hear it for Charles Bradley’s tears. It doesn’t get anymore real than that.