Kicking off a medium-sized soul music festival on a Tuesday night is a risky move, but pairing Charles Bradley with a young progressive jazz outfit is a smart move. It gave Soul’d Out a big feeling, the biggest in fact: the feeling of love. Any night of the week is perfect for love; that is the primary output of Charles Bradley. To follow up with The Robert Glasper Experiment personally made my week. There is much more ahead and surrounding these shows, so lets start from the beginning, and for the rest of the festival, I’ll tell you my story at Soul’d Out 2015.
The prog-jazz outfit is BADBADNOTGOOD and that is their name — the only thing not so good about them. BBNG is a trio that looks to be in their mid-twenties. They play with the chops of a band fresh out of jazz university — Humber College, Toronto is where they met — and their style is more compelling than most of the artists coming out of Berklee College these days. If I consider the range of sounds I heard last night, they haven’t invented a new genre so much as restored the art of jazz fusion. Their drummer and apparent band leader, Alex Sowinski, plays like Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt, with that same intensity but more accurate, and applied to the 21st Century, where hip-hop continues to broaden its reach in popular culture.
BBNG are three Canadian white boys that recently backed up Ghostface Killah, and their new album Sour Soul came out just two months ago. They have been putting out recordings since 2011, climbing their way to the top, out of (I assume) sheer skill and genuinely good attitudes. The drummer’s on-stage patter reiterates gratitude and positive energy, a sense of the importance of music making.
Keyboardist, Matt Tavares, holds an excited smile on his face throughout the show, broken only by brief moments of concentration as he changes settings or digs into complex arrangements. Bassist, Chester Hansen, keeps a close watch on his bandmates, never missing his cue, keeping a low rumble going most of the time. All of them have the capacity to swing into far-reaching territory and I look forward to following their future success. To get an idea of the kind of set they played last night, listen to this.
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaire’s arrived like one simple entree after a round of appetizers mixed up with a gang of friends. He is sweet enough to include the chocolate cake, on the house. Following up BBNG with Bradley’s genre-loyal approach made room for the James Brown throwback experience that we all wanted. Bradley is Soul Music, through and through. I was there for the premiere of Soul of America at SXSW in 2012 and I reported honestly that I had cried five times. He first appeared in Portland was for Music Fest NW in 2011, he played Aladdin Theater in 2013, but this was my first chance to catch him, and I cried once toward the end, right when he did.
Bradley’s story is the tale of the American nightmare, the incredible difficulty of making it as a poor illiterate black man in a world where, since he has been an adult man, economic disparity has grown wider and wider. He was releasing singles with Daptone Records while working as a James Brown tribute performer in Brooklyn, as far back as 2002. Daptone is not some big corporate savior record label throwing money at unknown performers to make them instantly rich. The soul-themed all-analog vinyl record label gradually got to where they could release Bradley’s full-length album in 2011, No Time For Dreaming. His 2013 follow-up, Victim of Love has been widely reviewed and critically acclaimed. As demonstrated by a packed-in audience at Roseland Theater, the story is going well for the 66-year old man whose life rose up from nothing, whose love defeats egotism, remaining grateful for every opportunity coming his way.
He moves very slow, at the pace of an old man until suddenly he snaps the microphone by its cable in perfect time, to get back on it, dipping the stand before him for the chorus. Sometimes he throws the stand over him and holds it there like a weight bringing him down, something to overcome. He’s got fast feet and sassy struts when necessary as well, but the key is his voice. The voice is not all about range or virtuosity, though he knows the notes he wants. His collaborators compose around the voice, the words, and he know exactly how to respond to them. His growl, his screams, his honest gut spilling out before us, that is the biggest appeal.
Standing with that scrunched up weathered face, extending his hand out with the other on his heart, or wide open in a christ pose — sometimes telling parables even — he evokes spirituality and simple wisdom. That might be why it always made me uncomfortable when he did the sexy moves, which are actually so innocent that it comes off as playful. It’s just that it feels like my own grandfather up there, or some kind of asexual avatar. At the same time, Bradley is child-like, and especially so when he does that naughty bit with the finger over his tongue.
The band provides good orchestration with trumpet, sax, a retro organ, drum kit, bass, and two guitars, each of them holding their own, disciplined and spotless. For my money though, if budget is the issue, I would favor two lady singers rather than a second guitarist. It was all guys up there, so I can see room for women across the instrumentation. Anyway, the band follows his commands, playing the part well. For instance, when Charles commands “break it down” it is always followed with a loud snap of the snare and the reduced reiteration of whatever part they happened to be on. The phrase did seem to mean a few things to Charles, causing a little confusion, but still he leads and they follow exactly on cue, and the show is well paced.
The band starts off with a funky bit and gets the audience moving before Charles walks on to great applause. They run through a bunch of tunes, he exits, they continue, and reenters with a new glamorous outfit. The first encore was Bradley stepping off stage to give away hugs. The band took a break and came back, they played a couple more, then it was back to hugs! With so many people in line to get theirs, I left. I wish press credentials always got you back stage. I would love to talk with him, to get to know him, then hug. But from what I saw, he is gifted with a spiritual power, a source of love unrelenting, and perhaps a hug passes a little of that on.
The Robert Glasper Experiment came to the Soul’d Out roster as a late addition, taking the stage at Dante’s last night. It was packed to the gills, actually sold out. I think he could have enjoyed a bigger room, like Star Theater, but Goapele was scheduled there.
His Grammy-winning R&B album, Black Radio, broke him through the mainstream with guest appearances from, Yasiin Bey, and Erykah Badu, amongst others, like Lalah Hathaway, whose vocal on “Cherish the Day” was replaced live last night by Goapele, who introduced herself as a “friend and fan.” Goapele’s appearance gave an important moment to the night, her singing was soft and pitch-perfect, soulful, and that song is an audience favorite. Black Radio also broke through the divide between R&B, hip-hop, and jazz. Glasper’s previous records are more traditional of the Blue Note catalog, but that experiment turned into a wild success, and I think he has carved himself a great niche. Much like Herbie Hancock, he employed electronics for a new fusion music that brings together estranged audiences.
Glasper is doing just as much for hip-hop as he is for jazz. It was one of the most diverse audiences I had ever seen, not purely by skin-color, but by personality. A grey-haired older jazz guy bopping his head next to a rapper, a hippie girl dancing beside some playboy. When someone can bring that kind of audience together, I think they have truly made it. Here is a remix of that Erykah Badu tune.
His band is the force behind him and deserve a lot of credit. There is a unified band in there, and they’re one of the best bands in hip-hop, jazz, or R&B. Drummer, Mark Colenburg, is a newer addition to the band, playing last night and on the 2013 follow-up record, Black Radio 2. His style is powerful and one of the highlights to me was an improvised duet between him and Glasper. In fact, if he had a choice between Colenburg and Questlove, I think he’d go with Colenburg, at least I would. It’s something about keeping himself spot on, playing between different shuffles and tempos — from a driving break-beat to slow hip-hop, and jazz smattering throughout — without losing step and always keeping it groovy.
Front man, Casey Benjamin is a multi-instrumentalist singer. His appearance is hipster meets spiritual guru with colorful dread-locks propped up on his head perfectly, making him almost alien from the 80’s, with body-hugging tank top and jeans. He controls the pitch of his vocoder from a keyboard-guitar (key-tar), which he uses most of the time, until the need for a sax melody or solo, also electrified. His big smile is like a beam of positive vibrations on the audience, this feeling of joy and fun always coming from him. Bassist, David Hodge comes off understated, keeping it nice and even for the band to work with. He is totally accommodating without losing personality.
Their show lasted two hours and just about everyone stayed for the whole thing, there was no sign of their energy letting up or the audience, but they blew through a lot of tunes, jammed, and if there was any hope of catching Goapele, we would need to run. I didn’t get all access passes to the festival, so I went straight home.
I’ll be back with reviews of Black Milk, Lyrics Born, and Yasiin Bey with Bad Brains. Until then, check out the schedule on our events page.