"The experience has been wild," says Charles Bradley. "I can say I didn't know that the people out there loved me so much. It's just so great. We get onstage and they're crying, and I'm crying — cries of joy."
Bradley, the 62-year-old soul singer touring behind last year's Daptone/Dunham Records release No Time for Dreaming, is on the phone from Washington, DC, where he's kicking off his springtime run. It's an early interview, crammed between sound check and dinner break — a point when pretty much any other artist on earth would be annoyed by the intrusion. But Bradley isn't like any other musician. He released his first album at an age when most folks are retiring, and started touring the world when most folks would have already packed it in and called it a lifetime. And it's clear from the tone of his voice — and the audible jocularity spilling over from the green room — that he's loving every minute of it. His enthusiasm for the art and for his audience is as pure and potent— at least in this author's experience — as any artist in the world right now.
"When you look in their faces you can see their real love for soul music — that they care about me, about my music," says Bradley. "And when I see that I respond to that, and I let them know that I care too.
"I met this one guy — he looked as though he were my age — and he said, 'Charles, man, I just want to thank you. I had cancer, and you helped me have hope in my life again.' ... That's why I like doing shows. I like going out to [the audience]. I like to be with them and let them know that I'm a real person, a down-to-earth person."
That down-to-earth, man-of-the-people vibe is no joke, either. It's no artifice solely for the purpose of distinguishing himself from the solipsism that permeates much of this era's soul music. Bradley has spent far more of his adult life working in a kitchen than working a stage, and he's spent more of his life struggling in anonymity than basking in the spotlight, more time singing someone else's songs than his own. On tracks like "Why Is It So Hard?," "Golden Rule" and "The World (Is Going up in Flames)," Bradley isn't pulling from the soul-by-numbers playbook they issue to every freshman music major, but rather from the pain and knowledge accumulated by a lifetime on the fringes of American society. Songs like "No Time for Dreaming" and "How Long" brim with a world-weary wisdom and bristle with the thrill of release, as if Bradley's entire life is poured into each and every note.
"It was scary when I got onstage and started singing about my life story, started singing about things that I lived through," he says. "I got too emotional. Some of the lyrics just wouldn't want to come out — all that really wanted to come out was tears. I had to fight that, I had to fight that deep emotion that brings my tears out."
And while his candor may be surprising — there aren't a lot of artists willing to talk to a total stranger about crying in public — the fact that he's been met with such an overwhelmingly positive response is not. From the near-universal praise for Dreaming to the buzz surrounding Soul of America, the feature film documenting Bradley's life, it's clear that audiences seeking honest, truthful soul music have found a champion in Bradley, and have heard their own voice in his. And fortunately for us, this isn't a one-and-done deal. Bradley is in it for the long haul, ready to record again, to cut more albums and to tour more places.
"Everybody's ready for it," says Bradley. "Everybody wonders what I'm coming out with next. I need to stir my soul, my spirit, and come right with it, because I wanted to record another record yesterday, you know?"
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