Charles Bradley is a 65-year-old black man who sings soul music with a band of young white Brooklynites. Whether that represents the best or worst of American music culture is a matter of perspective. Bradley’s career took off when Daptone Records founder Gabriel Roth saw him performing as a James Brown impersonator. Roth introduced him to producer Tom Brenneck, who helped him write and record his first album, No Time For Dreaming, in 2011. At age 62, Bradley lived out his lifelong dream of performing historically black music, thanks to several well-connected white people.
Even the most rigid purist would agree that Bradley is a rightful inheritor to the soul tradition. But what to make of the people onstage behind him? Now touring with the Menahan Street Band, Bradley is either a pleasing example of post-racial, post-class, post-generational American music or a disturbing instance of black culture co-opted. It’s a question of authenticity. And like most questions of authenticity, Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band turns on a false dichotomy.
Contemporary American music, including bearded hipster rock, is black music. In their embrace of soul, the bearded hipsters who back Bradley—both instrumentally and financially—only appear to join a long history of exploitation. From The Black Keys to Van Morrison, talented honkies have long made money selling black music without black people in it. But Brenneck and the MSB aren’t using their whiteness to market the soul tradition; they’re joining that tradition despite their race, through the clever expedient of letting a sexagenarian black man do his thing. The combination of Bradley and several guys who look like your sister’s boyfriend somehow points to soul not as authentic racial music, nor as ersatz culture for white people, but as a common ancestor of virtually everything that modern people like to listen to.
If you want proof, listen to Bradley’s cover of “Changes.” It’s a beautiful soul song, in such a way that I initially forgot it was written by Black Sabbath. It turns out that restrained longing, that dignified progression through the blues, is the unifying principle behind garage rock and lounge music.
Maybe “common denominator” is a better term. It’s not what brings people together; it’s the place we all came from. When I first heard about Charles Bradley, I thought he sounded like a novelty act. I was wrong. You know his music is the real thing, because everybody hears something familiar in it.
Charles Bradley plays the Top Hat Thu., July 31, at 8 PM. Doors open at 7. $17/ $14 advance at tophatlounge.com