Bradley brings soul to First Night Pittsburgh

| Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Soul is back.

It never left, of course — but soul music and R&B are undergoing a renaissance right now. From Frank Ocean last year, to Beyonce last week, the music is going through an extraordinary period of creative ferment.

Nobody, however, worked harder or longer to get here than Charles Bradley, who's headlining the First Night celebrations in Pittsburgh this year. He didn't release his debut album until 2011, at age 62.

After his abandonment as a child, a life of deprivation, constant poverty and occasional homelessness, the Brooklyn-based singer is strutting across stages worldwide, his faith in music and his singular voice vindicated.

Now, Bradley's biggest problem is keeping his voice from giving out after singing every night and a bout with the flu. Recently, it was reduced to a quiet, raspy croak — sounding like a radio station stuck between stations, engulfed in static.

“Olive oil and honey” he says is his home remedy. “No, it tastes good.”

He can't explain how he got here, exactly, only that soul music can't easily be cowed by suffering and tragedy.

“Soul music ain't never died,” Bradley says. “It won't ever die. What they're doing in the modern days, taking soul music into the computer, mixing it — all they're doing is mixing the soul of the music of our past and putting it into today. They try to mix it and play with it, but it's here to stay — that real soul that you want to sing on, that you want to get nasty with.”

Bradley's powerful voice, drawn-from-life songs and every-ounce-of-sweat performances invite comparisons to Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, and his live, horn-laden band backs this up. But one influence looms larger than the rest: James Brown. Bradley even worked as a Brown impersonator for a while, until he began to develop his own voice.

“James Brown was elementary to me,” Bradley says. “I came from the same life James Brown came from — a harsh, bad life. I didn't have a father. Looked to my faith and honesty — that's the way James Brown fit in. He had an eighth-grade education. That was my life, too.”

Bradley eventually moved into the orbit of Daptone Records, the retro-soul revivalists who made Sharon Jones a star and gave Amy Winehouse her distinctive live-band sound.

“(There's) nothing like a live band,” Bradley says. “I like to hear a live band when they get really into what they doing, and make a mistake. That can be the best lick you've ever heard — ‘Wow, what's that?' A computer won't make a mistake like that.”

Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires perform on the Highmark Stage on Penn Avenue, starting at 10:45 p.m., leading up to the midnight fireworks.

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