Monday, 29 April 2013

Feature - Charles Bradley

Published in the April issue of Rhythms magazine. Full feature below.

Holy Soul

Just over a year ago, Charles Bradley – the Screaming Eagle Of Soul – toured Australia for the first time. He was fronting the Menahan Street Band (another one out of the mighty Daptone stable), and even though he was only on stage with the band for a portion of their whole set, it was his songs that brought down houses country-wide.

For this man could sing. This man had soul. And not Soul Lite, but the real thing, the soul that you think about when you think about real soul, like it came right out of the ‘60s except this was 2012 and so minds were blown and Bradley became a legend right here. Man, this was the real deal, Bradley finishing sets on his knees, tears streaming down his face because he was so spent, so used up by the music he’d just created. A living legend, one who blossomed late – from a life on the streets, through almost unimaginable hardship, this man persevered and is now the soul guy of our generation. Real soul.

Bradley’s past is well documented now. He grew up rough on the streets of Brooklyn. He managed to escape and became a chef. He endured all sorts of abuse, mentally and physically, but he never lost track of his love for music, brought on early when his sister took him to see James Brown. He became a James Brown impersonator, and it was up on stage doing someone else’s thing, that he was ‘discovered’ by Gabe Roth, The Man at Daptone, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I wanted to go forward,” Bradley says about his James Brown impersonating days, in the late ‘90s, expressing frustration at doing the same thing all the time. “And [I was doing that] and Gabe came back and I asked him for an opportunity, so he put me on a show with Sharon Jones. Roth gave me a song to learn, but my spirit would just not attach it.

“So I tried to learn it, and the time came for me to get on stage, and I got on stage and I brought my own spirit. The guys knew I wasn’t singing the song I was suppose to be singing, but the audience really dug it. And Gabe understood that.”

I interviewed Bradley last year, not long before the aforementioned maiden tour of Australia, and one thing he said has stuck with me. “I’ve got to feel it,” he espoused at the time, referring to how he sings these songs, how he’s able to bring such a phenomenal amount of soul to his performances. He just can’t sing something if he doesn’t feel a connection, and it seems that’s still the case. “Once I feel it, my god, the sky is the limit,” he chuckled back then. Quite obviously, this is how he’s always worked, and with that Sharon Jones show, his gamble paid off.

Pic by Jelmer de Haas
From there things picked up quickly. Bradley was introduced to Tom Brenneck, the bandleader of the Menahan Street Band, and they worked together for a number of years before finally laying down Bradley’s debut record, No Time For Dreaming in 2011, an album which introduced Charles Bradley to the world. From living rough and sleeping in crack dens, to laying down an album with one of the best new soul bands on the planet, this man had made it.

“Oh man, that was a dream,” Bradley laughs. “Every time in my life, when I’ve got an opportunity, there’s been someone there trying to put me down… but not that time. That was the best opportunity I’d ever had, and [from that], things started to happen for me greatly, and I really appreciate that.”

Since then, Bradley has basically lived on the road, taking his music to places far and wide, something he’d not have even dreamt of not that long ago. No need to pinch himself though, for it’s real, and it’s manifested once more in record form, in the shape of Bradley’s second LP, the intensely soulful (as you’d expect) Victim Of Love.

Says Tom Brenneck on the comparison between Bradley’s two records, “The first record taps into maybe two or three feelings. But the range of emotion on this record is huge. The last record was written by a man living in the Brooklyn projects for twenty years. This record is more than just a poor man's cry from the ghetto. This time, he's grateful.”

Bradley, quoted in the new album’s press material, agrees. “I was singing about all these hardships that I've been through. I wanted people to know my struggles first, but now I want them to know how much they have helped me grow.”

“Yeah, the first album was [me] coming out of the darkness, afraid to come out of the darkness,” Bradley concurs now. “But this second album is like, going into the light. And I’m starting to learn a lot about myself, in areas that I’ve been afraid to touch, and to everybody that helped me, they gave me the strength to come through that, and I love everybody for that.”

I put it to Bradley that delving so deeply within himself in order to bring himself into the light, so to speak, would have been a scary experience. “Yes, exactly,” he says. “I was a person in my own shell, just watching the world outside. But now I’ve learnt to grab on to who I am… and if you love me, you love me, if you don’t, you don’t, I don’t care about that.

“It was scary to open up to [that], but I tell you, it’s great and rewarding in a lot of ways.”

The results are stunning. Victim of Love is a soul triumph, not only because of how it sounds and the pure energy that Bradley brings to it, but because it’s so honest. Here’s a man who is so grateful for these opportunities, singing these songs he believes in so much, that you can’t help but be drawn in to this record’s depths, you’re introduced to, almost, a new man, and he’s one who’s stepped up, and then some.

I ask Bradley about the title of the record. To me, it seems to be a shout-out to his fans, saying that he’s the grateful victim of the love he’s been shown over the past few years. “Exactly,” he smiles, “that’s exactly what it is.”

Aside from the fact Victim Of Love is the man coming into the light, I’m interested to know where it’s come from. No Time For Dreaming was a record which had sixty-something years to draw from, whereas this one has had a much, much shorter gestation period – where did these songs come from? What’s behind them? How did Bradley and Brenneck go about writing them?

“Well, I had a lot of deepness inside me, a lot of things I never could touch,” he reiterates. “So we really started looking inside and bringing them up, and not being afraid like I used to be.” I put it to Bradley that this record comes across, given what he’s been saying, as an exercise in self-belief.

“Yes,” he says simply. “Now I can come out and let the world know who I am, honestly… I can find the dreams and let them come out… bring them up and perform them to the best of my ability.”

This is what Bradley does, and what he’s always done, whether it be singing someone else’s songs, or now, his own; as long as he believes in them, as long as he can feel them, then these songs become real.

For those who didn’t get the chance to see Bradley’s sets here last year, and who can’t wait until he comes back (and who want even more insight into this man’s incredible rise), there’s now a documentary about too, that charts the two year period leading into No Time For Dreaming.

Charles Bradley: Soul Of America, the directorial debut for Poull Brien, is tagged as ‘From the projects to the pages of Rolling Stone’, which basically says it all. Following the man as he steps from the dark, and into the light, the doco captures Bradley vulnerable, it captures him defiant, it captures him elated. It captures one of the most inspiring stories in modern music.

But of course, it all comes down, at this point, to Victim Of Love, the proof that this man is stronger than most and so can therefore step into this light without worrying about a thing. And the fact he’s bringing this music with him as a result, is just icing on the cake.

Samuel J. Fell

Victim Of Love is available now through Daptone. Charles Bradley: Soul Of America will be available in May through Madman Entertainment.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Record Review - Various Artists (The History Of Skiffle)

An extended album review as part of the Yesterday Once More column in the April 2013 issue of Rhythms magazine.

Various Artists
Washboards, Kazoos, Banjos: The History Of Skiffle
Bear Family Records

It may come as a surprise to many to learn that skiffle has a long, rich history. An amalgamation of field songs, spirituals and gospel music, along with a healthy dose of jazz and blues, it drew from these venerable roots and took on its own shades, in turn informing many of the beat bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Indeed, before they were known as The Beatles, the Fab Four went under the name The Quarrymen Skiffle Group – this little sub-genre has played a huge part in the shaping of modern music, influencing the likes of not only The Beatles, but The Who, Eric Clapton, The Shadows and countless others.

Skiffle has its roots on the streets of New Orleans, early last century, where poor musicians, in an effort to keep up with their more well-off contemporaries who had real instruments, would fashion their own – a funnel with a trumpet mouthpiece; cigar box or tin can banjos; tea chests with broom handles and a single string to make an upright bass. These groups were called spasm bands, and they played easy to learn standards and hymns on these easy to make instruments.

Despite the genre’s true origins though, it was in the UK that skiffle really took off, not long after World War II. A young Englishman named Ken Colyer, inspired by his older brother’s jazz records, made it his life’s mission to get to New Orleans, which he eventually did, becoming completely taken with how these spasm bands worked. He returned home, stepped in as band leader with a local outfit, renamed it Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, and from there it began.

Along the way, other future skiffle luminaries popped up in the form of Chris Barber and the now legendary Lonnie Donegan – Colyer may be known as the father of skiffle, but Donegan is the king. It was Donegan (guitar, vocals), Barber (bass) and Beryl Bryden (washboard) who in 1955, released Leadbelly’s ‘Rock Island Line’, which became a huge hit, and a skiffle wave overtook the UK. Sure, it was reasonably short lived, but whilst the candle burned, many were influenced.

If all this has piqued your interested then, look no further than the latest release from Bear Family Records, which if you read Marty Jones’ Attention Span on the back page, you’ll realise have a lot going on at the moment. One of those things is this, Washboards, Kazoos & Banjos: The History Of Skiffle, an immense collection of all things skiffle, beginning with Colyer’s contributions in the early ‘50s, and over the course of six discs, everything else to boot.

Accompanying the discs is a gigantic 88-page hardcover book (in both German and English, given BFR is based in Germany) with in-depth notes by Ulf Krueger, an accomplished skiffle player in his own right who both played and recorded with Donegan. Indeed, Donegan has said of Krueger, “[He] is skiffle in Germany!”

Accompanying Krueger’s extensive notes are photos, record jackets, play bills and posters of the many skiffle bands that have made a mark at some point or other in the history of the genre, making this the history of skiffle, something that’ll take you weeks to truly digest.

To the music at hand then. CD1 begins with a smattering of bands who would have influenced the genre initially (Memphis Jug Band, Alabama Washboard Stompers, Leadbelly), before we get into Colyer’s contributions – around twenty-six tracks in all. CD2 is all Donegan, 27 tracks with that nasally voice, veering from folky balladry to bluesy stomps, but always with that DIY edge that basically defined all skiffle. Interesting too to hear an Englishman singing songs like ‘My Dixie Darling’, with such an American theme, but such an English take on the music itself.

From there we head off into Chris Barber territory, and also the Vipers Skiffle Group, who had much success in the later ‘50s on a more commercial level, once the genre had already taken off in the UK thanks to Colyer, Donegan et al. Plus, Alan Lomax & the Ramblers make a brief appearance, as do the Alexis Korner Skiffle group – big names within a small genre.

The rest of the collection is made up of a myriad other skiffle groups, none of whom had the impact of the genre’s forefathers but all of whom contributed to this rich vein in musical history. If you’re a skiffle fan, I cannot urge you enough to get your hands on this epic collection. If you’re new to the genre, perhaps find something a bit smaller to begin with, but if it grabs you just right, Bear Family Records have just what you need. Music, presentation, research and information, it’s all here and then some.

Samuel J. Fell

Monday, 15 April 2013

Record Review - Endless Boogie

Published in the Shortlist section of the Sydney Morning Herald, Friday April 12.

Endless Boogie
Long Island
No Quarter

Four out of five

It’s reasonably fitting that New York quartet Endless Boogie are signed to the Brooklyn-based No Quarter – for that’s what they give, their third LP, Long Island, being no exception. From the opening feedback squall, through eight tracks (only two of which clock in at under nine minutes long), the Boogie do what they do best, and that’s deliver the finest drone/stoner rock that exists on this planet today – no quarter asked, none given.

The Boogie began as a jam band, just four guys having fun, and it shows in the records they eventually released. This is very indulgent music, light on vocal, just slow, grinding guitars, swelling up and down, over a rock solid, constant beat – it is indeed an endless boogie. The 14-minute The Montgomery Manuscript brings it all home on Long Island, waxing and waning, a stoner triumph, as is the entire record, head-nodding jams from heaven.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Record Review - King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

Published in the April issue of Rhythms magazine.

King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard
Eyes Like The Sky
Flightless / FUSE

This is my favourite ‘What The Fuck?’ record so far this year. This decade, actually. You’d expect nothing less from Melbourne collective King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard to be honest, such is their penchant for not doing anything by the book. Not even close.

What this is, aside from being their fourth release thus far, is a spoken word spaghetti western record – almost an audio book in fact, set to music. In a nutshell, Oz music legend Brod Smith plays the part of narrator (in one of the best western voice-over voices you’ll ever hear, hands down), while the band paint vivid aural portraits over the top. You are lost in a desert somewhere. You can feel the hot wind. Your arse does hurt from riding your trusty steed for miles and miles. This is epic stuff.

Vocalist and songwriter Stu McKenzie approached Smith with this idea, Smith dug on it, and away they went. The music was recorded in a Melbourne lounge room, Smith’s voice-overs were recorded into a computer mic – all very easy, no fuss. Smith wrote the words and gave them to the band, and the band also wrote some music and gave it to Smith, to inspire the next chapter.

The result is a booming soundscape of ragged guitars, thundering drums, dusty boots, outlaws, booze and desperation, criminals and heroes, a film without pictures but you can see it so clearly, you’re there. The idea itself would have been a huge gamble, but it’s resulted in one of the records of the year, no doubt.

Samuel J. Fell