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Jazzfest Day Two: Charles Bradley shows how it’s done

April 28, 2013

The problem with a lot of retro R&B acts is that whenever they sing, they sound more in love with their record collection than with the lover they’re supposedly addressing. You get the sense that they’re more worried about sounding like their heroes than they are about convincing a wayward spouse to come home.

But when Charles Bradley sang in the Blues Tent at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Saturday night, there was no mistaking the intent behind his voice. Earlier in his career, Bradley worked as a James Brown impersonator named Black Velvet, but he wasn’t thinking about JB when he sang the title track from his new album, Victim of Love. When he stretched out the syllables on this old-fashioned soul ballad, he was thinking about the woman who had victimized him and how he might get her back. And when words failed him, he just screamed.

Bradley is 65, but he didn’t start performing under his own name till 2002 and didn’t release his first album till 2011. It’s hard to believe such a force of nature could be overlooked for so long, but there was no mistaking his talent at Jazzfest. Backed by an eight-piece band with horns and B-3 organ, Bradley wore a ‘70s-style afro and  a purple jumpsuit unzipped to the navel. When he danced, which was often, he combined Brown’s stutter steps with karate moves.

But when he sang, he sounded like no one else. On his current single, “Strictly Reserved,” he rode the punchy horn riffs to persuade his woman that their love should be reserved for “just you and me.” And the rich grain of his tenor was persuasive indeed. On social-commentary songs like “Confusion” and “Why Is It So Hard (To Make It in America),” he married his southern-soul confessionalism with the psychedelic-soul arrangements of Norman Whitfield’s work with the Temptations. But even on these, there was a strong personal investment in each number, making clear that he has suffered from confusion and found it hard to make it in his homeland.