Charles Bradley - Black Velvet - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Charles Bradley - Black Velvet

by Mark Moody Rating:8 Release Date:2018-11-09
Charles Bradley - Black Velvet
Charles Bradley - Black Velvet

I was graced to have been able to see Charles Bradley perform exactly one time at the inaugural High Water festival in Charleston last year.  The festival fell somewhere in between his diagnosis of stomach cancer and his passing less than half a year later.  In spite of his health issues, he was out doing what he did best and enjoyed most:  performing to adoring fans or to those who didn’t know who he was but would be instantly won over.  Like labelmate and fellow late bloomer, Sharon Jones, not only was Bradley compelled to perform as some innate instinct they also viewed themselves as humble servants fronting for the Daptone Records family.  As is the stuff that legends are made of, Bradley helped to refurbish the House of Soul studio that the label maintains to this day.  

Posthumously being released on Daptone sublabel, Dunham Records, Bradley’s Black Velvet follows in the footsteps of Jones’ Soul of Woman released last year after her passing.  Black Velvet consists of ten tracks compiled over Bradley’s less than a decade recording career.  Hardly feeling like a collection of leftovers, the album shows Bradley adroitly tackling any and all matter of hard funk, soul, R&B, and taking covers as disparate from Nirvana to Neil Young and making them his own.  

At the album’s core are three covers and an instrumental track that show Bradley’s range as interpreter and stylistic chameleon.  The album’s title is taken from Bradley’s moniker when earlier in his career he performed as the lead of a James Brown revue show.  The cover of Rodriguez’s ‘Slip Away’ takes the treacly original, finds its barely there melody, and turns it into a smooth as silk 70s soul ballad warmly powered by horns, piano, woodblock percussion and “wah wah” guitar.  Likewise, Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’, written when Young was in his twenties, becomes a testament to a life fully lived in Bradley’s hands.  When he sings “I’ve been to Hollywood, I’ve been to Redwood”, it speaks of hard-bitten experience, not something Young could have only imagined when he wrote it.  The hard funk/garage-y lather covering up the rolling groove of Nirvana’s ‘Stay Away’ turns the song from punk angst to a just as ominous workout as Bradley finds the song’s dark heart.  “I’d rather be dead than cool” undoubtedly meant something more to Cobain than Bradley, but you would never know it here.  While the album’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” instrumental vibe of the title track, sans Bradley’s vocal, becomes a misty “missing man formation” tribute to the Screaming Eagle of Soul. 

Black Velvet is a triumph based on that core alone, but there are plenty of other worthwhile tracks here.  Bradley’s opening growl on leadoff track ‘Can’t Fight the Feeling’, which is quickly met by the blaring horn charts of his Menahan Street Band, showcase him at his soulful best. The spare and sinuous ‘I Feel a Change’ gives Bradley plenty of room to leave it all on the stage as the song builds to a down on his knees gut-punch of a crescendo.  While the album-closing full-band take on earlier album title track ‘Victim of Love’ blows the original out of the water.  

It’s no doubt that the vapor trail vestiges of traditional soul music took an immense hit with the back to back losses of Jones and Bradley.  When Bradley took to the audience at High Water giving bear hugs to his fans as he declared his love for all of us, it was as if his and our lives depended on it.  There was no irony in Bradley’s declarations of adoration, he meant it as seriously as the cancer that ultimately took his life.  The man may be gone, but the recordings that remain prove what he knew all along.  Life and love are a gift to cherish and there is no better wrapper to receive it in than Bradley’s sweet soul music.


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