Charles Bradley and Abigail Washburn
Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park
July 16th, 2012
One usually goes into a free show being excited about the price of admission but rarely that excited about the act you are actually seeing. That’s because it always seems to me most free shows are that way for a reason – they either are a lesser known local band you are seeing for nothing or the artists seem random and rarely catch my eye. Last Monday’s free show as part of Millennium Park’s concert series broke both of those things bringing Charles Bradley and Abigail Washburn – two known great performers who I have never seen. While I have only heard Abigail Washburn’s cultured folk and bluegrass a time or two, I have been knee-deep in Charles Bradley 2011 classic soul debut No Time For Dreaming since the beginning of this year. The two made for easily the best free concert I have ever been to and Charles Bradley’s performance was the most soulful I have ever seen.
I will get to the two performances but first, a quick blurb on the venue. Jay Pritzker Pavilion is an astonishingly beautiful and exquisite sounding outdoor venue, especially for one owned by the city. The clashing metallic architecture and pitch perfect acoustics make for a must-see stop if you are visiting the Windy City and there is a performance then (they host free concerts in the summer several times each week). On top of that, the venue is open for you to BYO whatever you desire – food, blankets, drinks, Frisbees, etc. Even with it being a free show and showing up at the start of the show, we were still able to nail down fifth row dead center seats inside the pavilion.
On to Abigail – the Chicagoland born banjoist returned to her birth turf playing mostly songs from her wonderfully diverse last record, City of Refuge. Abigail is accompanied live by fiddle player Brittany Haas but primarily by multi-instrumentalist and co-songwriter Kai Welch. Abigail and Kai ripped through much of their diverse set (including traditional bluegrass, Chinese folk, slave spirituals, and deep blues cuts) with just the two of them, giving off sort of the Civil Wars vibe, harmonizing and playing off each other throughout. Bluegrass has always been a genre that simply blooms in the live setting, and Abigail was no exception. It didn’t hurt that she had gripping stories in between songs and through her songs and that she was extremely gracious in spirit.
Gracious was taken to a whole new level when Charles Bradley hits the stage. The 64-year-old Brooklyn Based soul singer essentially got a second lease on life with his timeless debut album No Time For Dreaming released late last year. Bradley spent much of his former life as a real journeyman, having spent time all around the country including many odd jobs including being a chef and even spent two years homeless on the streets of Brooklyn. Bradley’s music and life is an incredible testimony to the power of faith and perseverance.
The common comparison for Charles Bradley is James Brown which is especially appropriate considering he was discovered performing as a James Brown impersonator under the moniker “Black Velvet” and was transformed as a child when he saw Brown live at the Apollo. While Bradley no doubt takes a thing or two from the Hardest Working Man in Show Business’s repertoire, Bradley’s sound is his own and his performance is also very much his own even if very steeped in the soul tradition. Vocally, beside his remarkably Browns-esque soul screams, I think the most apt comparison is probably Ray Charles, especially considering his delivery is extremely gospel and his lyrics sing about both forms of love, romantic love and universal love. Lyrically, Marvin Gaye may be the best comparison since his lyrics are very urban and socially conscious.
Now to his performance – Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires put on one of the best soul performances I have ever seen. Charles’ band the Extraordinaires is in many ways a very odd one – the band consists of five white boys who look and play like Julliard dropouts and can’t be over the age of 30. A band like that backing up a 64-year-old soul singer no doubt seems like an odd sight, but the two were just a fantastic pairing. The band played one of the liveliest and most relentless brands of soul I have ever seen live, and Bradley’s groovy and humorous onstage moves worked for a perfect match with the band. Bradley and his Extraordinaires ripped through almost all of No Time for Dreaming as well a non-album cut in “This Love Ain’t Big Enough For The Two of Us” and rousing cover of the Neil Young classic “Heart of Gold”.
^11 minutes of Bradley’s performance at Pritzker Pavilion.
Bradley was introduced by one of the Extraordinaires with plenty of superlative nicknames including “Dalai Lama of Soul”, “the original Black Swan”, and of course, “The Screaming Eagle of Soul”, and Bradley lived up to all of them. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of an artist that pours more of his energy, heart, and soul into his performances seemingly every night. As Austin talked about in his review of a free Michael Franti show in St. Louis, most artists phone in free shows, and Charles Bradley did whatever is the opposite of that. Crowds at free shows are extremely difficult to win over since most are not actually fans of the performing artist, but Bradley got a standing ovation almost every single song – a rare sight at any concert, free or not.
Bradley appeared completely thankful throughout his entire performance and gave mini-sermons on faith and love without seeming the slightest preachy. At the end of his rousing encore of his mini-life story, “Why Is It So Hard”, Bradley went down into the audience and began to give hug after hug, and didn’t stop giving hugs until about 10 minutes after the show had ended and lights had dimmed. Performers such as Bradley come around only once in a while, making him a must see for all music fans, not just soul music fans.
Can’t Miss Live: “Why Is It So Hard”, “Golden Rule”, “Lovin’ You Baby” “This Love Ain’t Big Enough For The Two of Us”
Can’t Hit Live: none