Black Velvet (Daptone)
A few years ago, when Charles Bradley toured Australia as the support act to Alabama Shakes, there was this odd little thing that happened, giving us an unintended message about the man.
Bradley was there ostensibly as a solo act, with a backing band; Alabama Shakes were ostensibly a band with singer/songwriter Brittany Howard the focal point but first among equals. Bradley was set up with his band behind and around him in a semi-circle, ready to recede into the background, while Alabama Shakes played as a regular band spread across the stage, each able to step out.
But here’s the oddity: Alabama Shakes were effectively cut off from the compelling Howard whose focus all night was outwards to the audience with almost no interaction with bandmates who in turn were mostly withdrawn even from each other. They looked and felt like a bunch of hired hands.
Bradley though, as much as he moved and performed to us, soaking up the emotion in the room and giving it back to us five-fold, looked and deferred to the band throughout his set, connecting with them, drawing from them and being energised by them. This was a joint effort and the payoff for the audience arguably was greater.
That same generosity of spirit, that warmth and that willingness – maybe even a need - to share the emotional load and the emotional rewards is all through this posthumously released record. A proper soul record, flaws and all. Maybe especially because of its flaws.
This is a soul record in so many senses of the word: love, hurt and resilience told from the gut, from the heart and from the head (in that order); grooves set on shifting rather than shoving bodies; a voice loaded with experience of life’s worst as well as best turns rather than selling itself on purity of tone; guitars as contributors with expressiveness, rather than dominators of space and volume; keyboards linking the church and the bar; brass a regular punctuation that sometimes serves as a storyteller.
All up a slow burn rather than an outright scorcher, a player in the style that doesn’t really move the dial somewhere new but puts the familiar motifs in believable contexts.
Which isn’t to suggest a bunch of re-treads, even if the songs are essentially the things that hadn’t been settled on his three studio albums with Daptone, the label which afforded him a late-in-life career, and along the way gained for themselves the kind of earthiness that these young soul fans would take decades more to earn but which Bradley and fellow Daptone late bloomer/prematurely taken Sharon Jones carried easily.
There are “new” songs that recall all three of his albums, an unlikely cover of Neil Young’s Heart Of Gold that shuffles the deck without really adding anything substantial, and a song, (I Hope You Find) The Good Life, that freely borrows from a few unexpected sources: Bobby Vee (Go Away Little Girl) and Barbra Streisand (The Way We Were) while soaking in a deep Philly soul bath.
Bradley’s voice, which only now and then betrays his long history as a James Brown imitator – perhaps most notably on the album’s closer, Victim Of Love, where it’s contrasted with the croon-ish male backing vocals of the Sha La Das – has its limitations. There’s a narrow range here which depends on huskiness adding the extra level of keen feeling in place of a run through outer notes or even the grace notes of finer subtleties. But as said earlier, the impact comes in the truth of that feeling rather than the technical flair.
That feeling as inferred or interpreted by me does come with a caveat of sorts. Black Velvet of course is being heard and evaluated with the weight of Bradley’s death at the age of 69 late last year on it. We can, and do, impose meaning on things which may well have been created in a context wholly free from those assumptions and inferences.
But then the album also has to been in the context of a man whose life was a series of tragedies and setbacks that if you were to construct them in fiction would seem like an act of writerly overkill. So, let’s call it fair grounds for interpretation.
Let’s also call it fair grounds for seeing this is as a record of satisfying soul, heavy with feeling but carried with ease. And shared. Because that’s how Charles Bradley did things.