Fans of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer will recall that at the beginning of the fifth season of the show Buffy suddenly had a 14-year-old younger sister, Dawn, who everyone treated as though she had been there all her life, even though this was the first we had seen of her. Dawn, it emerged, was in fact a mystical force of energy called the Key, transformed into human form by a spell designed to protect her true identity.
No rituals were involved in the making of Charles Bradley and I’m reasonably sure he is not the Key in human form (whatever the other claims made on his behalf).
But it’s hard not to think of Dawn when Bradley performs as the opening act in the James Cabaret strand of music events at this year’s New Zealand Festival. Because watching this 65-year-old soul singer, with his theatrical moves and no less theatrical threads (including a costume change half-way through the night), you have to remind yourself he’s not an Al Green we can remember doing all this 40 years ago when the moves were nimbler and the threads less tight-fitting; he only came into our lives a few years back, after being discovered by Daptone Records, which went on to release the albums No Time for Dreaming (2011) and Victim of Love (2013).
Bradley is a freshly minted elder statesman of soul – a soul simulacrum, if you will.
His troubled life before his belated discovery was subject of the 2012 documentary Soul of America, which only added to his following.
But where the similarly neglected Rodriguez, whose story was told in the documentary Searching for Sugarman (2012), disappointed when he performed in New Zealand last year, Bradley gives it his all and that all is quite something to behold – buoyed up by a tremendous seven-strong backing band straight off the seemingly endless Daptone production line of young white hipsters in possession of more soul chops than might be reasonably expected outside of Stax Records circa 1968.
Jaws drop at the energy and emotion that pour through opener Crying in the Chapel – and the template is set for a night where Bradley’s voice will traverse anguish, longing and ecstasy at a pitch few others could match.
You could never call him sui generis, though; that isn’t the Daptone way. Otis Redding and James Brown are the obvious reference points (Bradley was discovered while performing as a Brown impersonator); Curtis Mayfield is a less obvious one.
But if it is impossible to think of Bradley separate from his influences – again, Dawn comes to mind, when Buffy casts a spell to reveal spells and Dawn starts to fade in and out of family photographs – the spell is a joy while it holds.
CHARLES BRADLEY, James Cabaret, Wellington, February 22 and 23, as part of the New Zealand Festival.