The weirdest and best concert experience of my life
First, meet Charles. Take a second and get to know him and then continue.
Let me just start off by apologizing. There are no words to describe what it's like to see Charles Bradley perform. I am doing him an injustice by even attempting to talk about who he is and the sheer spiritual experience I felt while watching him up on that stage. It was the best performance I've ever seen and I don't think I'm the only person who could say that. If you really want to know him, watch the videos I share, follow the links to interviews and find his music on Bandcamp or Spotify. You won't be disappointed.
On Wednesday, February 24, the musician, Charles Bradley was scheduled to perform at the Ponte Vedre Concert Hall. A few friends of mine were planning on going, having already purchased their tickets. I didn’t know any of this until Tuesday morning, when I invited myself along with them. They are all very impressed with him, and the story they told intrigued me enough for me to research him and his music. There are several tales they kept telling. Charles Bradley wasn’t discovered until in his 60’s. From his Wiki page, it appears he was discovered by Gabriel Roth, cofounder of Daptone records. The year isn’t stated, but the first songs of his they released were in 2002, making him 54 at that time. But he wouldn't release his first record until 2011, when he was 63.
The other thing my friends said was that he worked as a James Brown impersonator. This is true. It’s how Roth discovered Bradley. Apparently, when Bradley was little, he went to see king of soul in concert. He began playing around, impersonating his trademark style. While working as a chef in Maine, a co-worker told him he looked like Brown and asked if he knew how to sing. Bradley shyly agreed. He performed with a band several times until his bandmates were drafted into the Vietnam war.
If you ever see him perform, you’ll notice he has Brown’s microphone pull-back trick down pat.
Click on the photo to get to the interview.
In 1996, his mother asked him to move to Brooklyn to be with her and he began a career impersonating Brown as “Black Velvet”. Sometime after this, was when Roth saw Bradley and began introducing him to his future producer and music colleagues.
My friends also say Bradley was homeless. This too, appears to be true. After working in Maine for ten years, Bradley hitchhiked across the U.S. and lived in upstate New York, where he worked as a chef at a mental hospital, Alaska, Canada and eventually settled in California. He worked odd jobs and performed small shows for the next 20 years. Woah.
If you're interested in the personal aspect of Bradley, you're in luck. in 2012, Bradley was subject of a documentary by Poull Brian, titled, Soul of America. It debuted at SXSW and tells Bradley’s story since childhood. It's not on Netflix, but you can find it on Amazon and iTunes.
This is the trailer. If you watch nothing else about him, or don't feel like finishing this read. Stop here. Watch this and go about your busy life.
After reading interviews with Charles, it becomes clear that there is so much to say about him. His life is incredibly full and complicated. Here is a link to an interview by Shannon Carlin for Radio.com
The final quote Carlin used in the article is:
“You can’t erase that pain, you learn to live with it,” Bradley said of his past. “I see the good it’s doing for people out there, that pain that I carry, but in that pain comes truth. I had to go through that hurt to get that strength.”
So anyway, back to Wednesday. I spent a good portion of the day skateboarding around aimlessly (A luxury I have become accustomed to), listening to every single Charles Bradley song I can get my hands on. I watch his music videos incessantly. My favorites are Changes and The World, which was directed by the man that would later make the documentary film.
Also, the title track off his new album Changes, was voted by Rolling Stone as one of the best songs of the year. His debut album was named one of the top albums of the year. The more I research about him, the more I find more people who genuinely believe in him and the power of his story.
I’m in love.
I’m such a cheat! First with Bowie and now with Bradley. But, the more I do this, the more I’m okay with it (typical). I think that’s how it works. You form an instant connection with an artist and the connection varies in degrees, leading all the way up to full-on fangirl. That’s kind of how I felt about Bradley. The thing that made this circumstance different than other times one goes into fan-girl mode, was that I was going to see him perform live that very night. This may or may not have amplified said excitement. Who’s to say.
Torie during her finest hour on tour
I convince my partner in crime from tour, Torie, to come with me. This is already a recipe for crazy.
So, it’s us and our roommate Whitney and Zach Deputy's tour manager, CJ, that Torie and I traveled in that god-forsaken van with for a month. He came into town from Savannah and is pretty much the only reason any of us know who Bradley is and are attending. Upon hearing that I am a newborn fan, he cackles with insulting amusement and shakes his head. “So, you’ve probably been listening to all his music and memorizing lines and now you are his number one fan?” I smile. He shakes his head and we move on. Traveling on tour together gives you license to be as mean as siblings and CJ and I live by this rule.
We pick CJ up from the bus station and grab dinner at this Italian place in Downtown Jacksonville. It’s one of those places with pictures of singers and actors on the walls, unintelligible signature scrawled across the bottom and dedicated to the place of business. I wanted to like this little hole in the wall, but they pretty much ignored our existence from the time we opened our mouths. I collected our empty beers from the table, took them to the counter and ordered new ones. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, I just remember yelling "BLUE MOON!" five times, until the man behind the counter understood me and then immediately feeling like an asshole.
Torie and I haven’t seen CJ since tour ended several weeks ago. It was good to sit and catch up about how things have been on the road. CJ confirmed that he did in fact, miss us. After that, our attention waned. The restaurant was next door to a popular music venue in Jacksonville, where the band O.A.R. was playing that night. Their tour bus was parked right out front and we saw several people stroll by with lanyards around their necks. CJ swears one was the singer. We had our doubts.
It made me feel nostalgic about that time of my life (Oh, so long ago), hanging out around the venue before the doors open, the power of a lanyard, the sensation that the day was just beginning at 6pm and it was going to be a wild night…again.
The whole food endeavor lasted about an hour and half. This left us with just enough time to speed home, change like we were late for school and run out the door, all while CJ watched the fury of girls getting ready in pure confusion and disillusionment.
The show started at 8pm and we weaseled our way through the door right as he was coming on stage. It was assigned seating, but after discovering people already in ours, Torie and I elected to hang out and dance in the large open area behind all the seats.
He blew me away. Literally, I think I felt my hair swoosh behind me every time he let out one of those signature long winded explosions of voice. I felt like I had been transported to the 1970’s. I was watching a dying art, or what I thought was a dying art. Apparently it's up and running. The packed house was reverberating the energy all around the building and one felt like they were a part of something.
My favorite moments were the slow songs. I was close enough to see the emotion in his face, and couldn’t help but think , “I’m seeing something very special right now. Remember this.”
There was such raw emotion in Bradley’s performance, voice, face. Every song was sung like an encore. After listening to The Expendables play the exact same set list every night, over the recording in their ear-piece and on top of that, say the EXACT SAME thing in between each song, it was almost soul-healing to see Bradley’s performance. My faith in the art of performance has been renewed.
We figured out we could go right up to the edge of the stage on either side, since everyone was staying in their seats. We were able to hang out comfortably next the first row, with room to dance and no one in front of us. Other people caught on and towards the end of the show, I turned around to see that a mob had gathered behind us and we were its leaders.
Now, we weren’t hurting anyone, but I can understand how the people sitting next to us, who had probably dished out a good chunk of change felt about their new freeloading neighbors. But, if their is anything I’ve learned in life, it’s that you got to make the most out of every situation. In other words, I didn’t give a crap.
Someone presented Bradley with a dozen roses and after he finished his encore, he walked the front row line and passed them out, hugging and kissing people. I had gotten pushed (mostly by Torie) up farther and without realizing it, had cut off a girl in the front row. I was made aware when I felt a hard poke in my arm. She had clenched all of her fingers together and karate-chop poked me. “You need to wait your turn.” I was several drinks in and in my “nobody puts baby in a corner” phase. Needless to say, I didn't follow suit. Perhaps I've worked in the customer service industry too long, but when faced with a bitchy unsatisfied customer, I tend to lock into fight or spite syndrome. This infuriated her and I could tell she was struggling in a pathetic way to try and find a better spot than me. As she struggled silently to herself, Bradley walked towards us, handed me a rose and leaned in between me and Torie’s faces. We each gave him a kiss on the cheek and he bursted out laughing, continuing his journey to the stage door. I thought about giving the girl my rose to say I'm sorry.
That’s a lie.
This next part is where things get hectic. During the encore, the organ player, who I will later learn is named Mike, took control of the mic. He had a great stage presence. I waved at him to come over to the side of the stage. He did. I introduced myself and Torie and we chatted, briefly. Bradley was about to come back on, so he obviously had to go back to the organ. But, we agreed to exchange numbers after the show and possibly meet up.
This video is a full performance of Bradley and His Extraordinaires. Mike is the one introducing him.
So after Bradley made his rounds, Mike came over and we talked about our plans for the night. It turned out his phone was dead. I had left mine in the car and Torie couldn’t find hers. We kind of looked at each other and then Torie blurted out, “I have to pee.” He pulled us up onto the stage and led us back around and down to the green room. The band members were all there, eating food and hanging out. As we passed by the door to a separate hallway-like room, we saw Charles sitting by himself in front of a large mirror. Someone came out of the room and said, “Charles wants privacy.”
After using the bathroom, we wrote Torie’s number down on a plate and continued to talk with Mike and several others. They said they were definitely interested in going to a bar, which was our plan and would call us after they finished loading and such. It all happened so fast and as I said, I was a few drinks in, so it’s hard to remember how it all happened. But, at some point, a few minutes later, as we were leaving, we saw the door go slightly ajar. Before I knew what was happening, Torie was walking though the door and I was following.
We came face to face with an extremely kind man, full of life and happy to see us. His laugh was contagious. I felt relieved and overwhelmed with emotion upon realizing he was exactly how I had hoped he would be.
We asked if we could take a picture and he said only if we sit on his lap. No argument there. There was a container of popcorn in front of him, that was obviously his, and Torie grabbed it, shoved a handful in her mouth and then proceeded to throw several more kernels at people nearby. I’ll never forget the sound of his laugh...and the moment I realized his hand was on my butt. Okay, so the gig is up. It was on my half-butt. But there is no argument I was now closer to Bradley than I would have ever thought possible.
This was not how I imagined I’d be spending my Wednesday evening.
And let's be honest and a little vain for a second, because one day I will be old and could never get away with shenanigans like this...I look good.
The bouncer helped us find our way out and we spilled out, into the front of the building, where crowds of people were hanging out. We were holding arms, laughing hysterically and running through the mob, trying to find our friends and share the story. When we eventually found them, CJ just said, “You two would.” No one seemed that surprised that we had managed to go backstage. We are a good team.
On the way to a bar in Jax Beach, Mike called. Him and several of the other band members met us at this bar called Hoptinger. The drummer kept telling our friend Steph that he was falling in love with her and CJ was fanning out on the band members, who I had no idea where famous in their own right. He stole my phone at one point to take the worst selfie i’ve ever seen. Mike and I ended up talking for most of the night and at one point, I thought how crazy it was that I was sitting here with him, engaged in this conversation, when just a few hours ago, I had seen him for the first time on that stage and waved him over.
In moments like this, your brain, even if it is the trained brain of a writer, always thinks the most cliche’ thought, “Life is crazy.”
Oh, and If you're reading this, Mike..sorry I was a bit drunk, eh, a good bit drunk.
Mike and Billy, the trumpet player, came back to the house and hung out with everyone a while longer. I was done with the world, so I went straight to bed. I later heard that Torie and our friend Meghan had treated them to some drunk free-styling raps, a favorite past time of theirs.
It was a good night. It was good to reconnect with CJ and show him that we learned a thing or two about how to get backstage. The little birds have flown the nest.
If you didn’t think the story could get any weirder, you thought wrong.
Two days after the show, I wake up and am laying in bed, being a loser and checking social media. When I log into Facebook, I see that my friend, Chandler, who lives in Asheville, has tagged me in a post. After a brief moment, still half asleep, of pure confusion, I realize that Charles Bradley, himself, has found the picture of us backstage (Torie’s Instagram) and posted it to both his Facebook and Instagram accounts with the title, “Enjoying all Florida has to offer!”
Realistically, it isn't likely that Charles is the one that posts on his social media. And I have a sneaking suspicion that Mike may have been behind this.
I let out a strange scream-laugh and jumped out of the bed. I ran to Whitney’s room and started reading from the comments. “Sharing is caring”, “Wish there was a love and luv button” “Who are these girls?” and a mess of other suggestive and enthusiastic words. It had been up for a few hours, had thousands of likes and friends of mine that were fans of Charles on Facebook, were seeing it on their feed and liking it.
Some of the comments were quoting Bradley’s songs and refurbishing the words a bit to make a joke, like, “My pants are on fire” or “It’s so hard!” Those were weird.
Right then, Torie walked in the door with her boyfriend, Kenny, who had gone to the show separate from us. She had no clue. I love that I got to be there when she saw it for the first time, because her and Kenny’s faces were priceless.
We all sat in the kitchen, laughing hysterically and taking turns reading the strange comments out loud.
The next day, Bradley’s account showed that the posts had been taken down. I sighed with relief. The comments were getting weird.
I pondered why for a while and I suppose I will never know. It could be that they only intended to post it for a few days or Charles had asked for it to be taken down. Or, perhaps it was the comments. They were a little wild. Some of them made my stomach cringe. But, mostly they just made me laugh.
Times like this remind me that I won't always be able to do these things. When I chose to go traveling the U.S. alone in my car, with nothing but a strange idea to write poems and a camping stove, instead of settling down in Fairbanks, I knew it sounded crazy but I had to do it. I had this insatiable urge to experience everything and I felt I couldn't be truly happy, or even sane if I didn't fulfill this desire in my heart.
The lifestyle that I am living this year, encourages moments like these. Not everyone will agree with how I live, but for the first time in my life, I'm okay with that. I wake up every day and ask myself, "What do you want to do today?" And that never gets old.
Because how else would I have had the chance to hear about an amazing soul singer, spend two days obsessing and falling in love with him, get all dressed up to go see him perform live, meet him backstage, spend all night, drinking and talking to the band and then get internet famous because someone thought I looked damn good sitting on his lap. If that's not living, I don't know what is.
Life is crazy.