Were those tears on Charles Bradley’s face or just beads of sweat? Both, I’d venture to guess. It had been about 100 degrees earlier in the day and was still fairly steamy when Bradley hit the stage Monday night (July 16) at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion — and he’s an energetic performer who tends to sweat anyway, in the tradition of another singer he resembles in many ways, the legendarily hardworking James Brown. But Bradley’s songs are also drenched with emotion.
Just as he did at last summer’s Chicago gig, Bradley strained his voice to the limits, screaming and shouting and squeezing out notes bursting with both pain and passion. His band, the Extraordinaries, kept a soulful groove bouncing through the whole set, including a few instrumental tracks, but the focus was on Bradley, who truly seemed to wow the audience with his unbridled intensity as well as his heartfelt comments. His encore made a strong case for “Why Is It So Hard” being one of the great songs of recent years, and as the song ended, Bradley descended from the stage and hugged some of his fans across the security barricade for several minutes.
Speaking of security barricades… Bradley urged audience members to get up close to the stage and start dancing, but Millennium Park’s security guards refused to let anyone into that area (reserved for press photographer such as myself), or even to stand in the aisles. Security concerns and keeping the aisles open are legitimate concerns, but surely the guards could lighten up a bit. At least, people were allowed to stand up in front of their seats and sway to Bradley’s soul-baring soul music.
Monday’s free concert also featured an excellent opening act, folk singer-songwriter-banjoist Abigail Washburn. She sang lovely original compositions as well as a couple of old gospel and folk songs of the sort that you’ll hear on Alan Lomax’s field recordings — and even a song in Chinese, which she learned when she lived in China. Washburn’s music was often quiet and spare, sounding beautiful and crystal clear in the summer air at the Pritzker Pavilion, making the concert feel like an intimate gathering despite the epic proportions of the venue.