Brooklyn-based R&B soul singer Charles Bradley has traveled down a hard, crooked road, eventually making a circuitous journey back to his old stomping grounds after stops in Maine, Alaska and California. Now, at the age of 63, Bradley has finally gained some recognition with his excellent, aptly-titled debut, No Time For Dreaming, accompanied by Menahan Street Band, an all-star outfit comprised of the crème players from Brooklyn's Daptone Records family.
In 2004, Bradley was plucked from the neighborhood bar circuit in Brooklyn by Thomas Brenneck, founding member of Daptone's corral of musicians and Menahan Street Band's leader, and they collaborated on a small number of 7" singles. Bradley's raw, straight-ahead R&B approach lies in the tradition of James Brown, Syl Johnson (whose retrospective box set was recently released by The Numero Group) and Wilson Pickett, whose presence looms most heavily. Menahan Street Band, comprised of members of Budos Band, El Michels Affair, Antibalas and Sharon Jones' Dap-Kings, drew on early '70s West Coast Soul on their 2008 debut full-length, Make the Road by Walking, especially Tower of Power, War and El Chicano. On No Time For Dreaming all of those disparate influences come together with near-perfect accompaniment depending on what each song calls for. The combination is powerful.
Whether on the Stax-like arrangements for the slow soul-burners such as "Lovin' You Baby" and "Heartaches and Pain" or the Afrobeat groove of "Golden Rule," MSB executes its chops with a confident yet loose ease, giving proper space for Bradley's powerful vocals laden with a heavy life experience carried proudly on his sleeve. This is best reflected in his autobiographical "Why Is It So Hard," where Bradley poignantly belts out, "Why is it so hard to make it in America? I tried so hard to make it in America, a land of milk and honey, a land supposed to be built on love." On "How Long," arguably the record's finest song, the hybrid '60s R&B/soul comes together perfectly, as if updating an early James Brown number. The reverb-ringing of the electric guitar chord, the church organ hip-hop riff, the horn line floating over the top of the song and Bradley's screaming vocals punching through the middle make for a brilliant soul mixture.
Bradley also perfectly fits alongside Sharon Jones and Lee Fields in Daptone's growing stable of not-so-young, hard-edged soul singers. Like Jones and Fields, Bradley is a street survivor who puts his distinctive life experience into his expression and execution; he makes the well-worn style his own, full of immediacy and feeling, sometimes in place of that perfect note. That is perhaps something someone lesser-experienced can't fully emulate or learn. As No Time For Dreaming illustrates, soul comes from somewhere deeper.