Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band, Dec. 7 at the Wild Buffalo

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I have seen Charles Bradley twice now, and those two performances rate number one and two on my list of favorite live shows. As Dumbledore once told a young Harry Potter, “…between you and me, that is saying something.” To accurately describe the experience of Charles Bradley singing 10 feet before me in the Wild Buffalo would take a feat of literary strength powerful enough to move Jonathan Franzen to tears. Alas, I will endeavor.

Charles Bradley, or as he is affectionately called by fans—the Screaming Eagle of Soul—is a uniquely emotive singer. When he belts, his voice carries powerful emotions like pain, fear, hope, confusion, and joy all combined into one. Regardless of what his lyrics say from song to song the message is clear: love. Charles Bradley doesn’t sing about love, he makes you feel love with his voice. When Charles’s voice washes over me I feel I’m a young boy being comforted by my mother again. Being in the room with him is to know you are with someone who understands your pain, and wants to guide you through it. His wisdom pours from his words, and his love pours from his heart. By the end of the night I loved him, but more importantly I loved myself again. The Screaming Eagle is more then a performance, it’s catharsis.

To understand his music you have to know a few things about the man. Charles Bradley was born in Gainesville, Florida, then moved as a boy to live with his mother in Brooklyn. As a teen he ran away and lived on the streets of New York until he was old enough to work as a chef. He cooked his way across North America, too embarrassed to sing in front of a crowd. Eventually he ended up in California working odd jobs and finally singing for small clubs. After 20 years he moved back to Brooklyn a second time to be with his mother again. Tragedy and success came hand in hand as he flirted with death, mourned the murder of his brother, loved, lost, and performed. He worked as a James Brown impersonator under the name “Black Velvet” before meeting Gabriel Roth, co-founder of Daptone Records. His remarkable story is told in the documentary “Soul of America” and the pains of his life (and their lessons) feature prominently in his music. When he sings songs like “Heartaches and Pain” or “Why Is It So Hard,” you empathize with him because he lived every word he sings. So often, even in great local songs, the music is inspired by superficial themes and made up stories. When Charles Bradley performs, the tears on his face are neither made up or superficial. The pain of his life is still raw every time, even at the age of 64. Charles Bradley’s dedication to putting himself out there and opening his heart every time he sings is what makes him one of the great performers of all time.

To anyone who wasn’t able to buy a ticket in time for the show Dec. 7 at the Wild Buffalo I am deeply sorry. It sold out a couple days before and anyone who slept on getting their tickets joined the lot begging on Facebook and Craigslist for spares. Those who were able to make it were diverse and enthused. People of all ages and backgrounds filled into the Buffalo with a unified understanding that something amazing was about to happen—it felt like what I imagine waiting in line before the pearly gates would.

The Menahan Street Band stepped on stage first and of course played as well as you would expect a world-class funk ensemble to, but the addition of Charles Bradley to their set is what made the night special. The encore was ethereal and once Charles was done he jumped off stage, band still playing, and embraced every single person in the front couple rows. He gives the kind of hug you give to a lifelong friend you haven’t seen in years. A hug that he needed as much as anyone in the audience did. If a more poetic image of the night can be drawn I can’t think of it. The Screaming Eagle of Soul left Bellingham with a message, which he repeated several times during his set, “I love playing here, and I love all of you.” Like any great lover, he said it with his actions as much as his words.

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