Eight months ago, Charles Bradley returned to New York to play one of its most beloved venues, and he was tired. The soul singer is known for his lung-busting howls and rambunctious choreography, complete with mic-stand tricks, fancy footwork, hip checks, thrusts, the works. He hit every note that late-September night at Radio City Music Hall, but the moves were largely muted as he rolled through a stirring set list that plucked from 2013’s Victim of Love and 2016’s Changes, albums that bank on the universal conditions of heartaches and pain.
But something was off, and that something turned out to be a lot more serious than road fatigue. Bradley, a month shy of his 68th birthday, had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, which led to the cancellation of the remainder of his fall dates shortly after the Radio City gig. Bradley got off the road, sought out treatment, and began to heal, a difficult endeavor for anyone, let alone a man whose performances possess spiritual and medicinal properties for his audience and himself.
That night in New York now feels much further than a few pages back on the calendar, thanks in no small part to Bradley’s tenacity and the exuberance he’s currently bringing to the stage. If the man who played Radio City back in the fall was Bradley singing on the fumes of his usual verve, the Bradley who showed up at Brooklyn Bowl on June 1 was fully fueled, a boisterous force refreshed and resplendent in sequins and a fur-trimmed coat for the occasion. As soon as his band, the Extraordinaires, finished the vamping and the unfurling of his dramatic introduction, Bradley made a beeline for his microphone before a sea of raised hands (and raised phones) and stretched out his arms — a familiar gesture, as the Screaming Eagle of Soul tends to show off his wingspan at any given opportunity. The self-proclaimed Victim of Love was back, and done being a victim.
Bradley had missed his fans, and it showed. Gratitude and awareness of his bond with the audience shone in every verse. His set list pulled from his three full-length albums, offering his own State of the Union address from the first ("The World (Is Going up in Flames)") and moving on to the dance breaks (“You Put the Flame on It”) and calls to action (“Where Do We Go from Here?”) that pepper his second and third LPs. His confidence guided sure feet and a stunning vocal performance, as he hit his turns and clocked his high notes to the rafters. He paused for a costume change midway through, making room for a delightful surf-inflected interlude from the Extraordinaires, and returned in an iridescent getup that rivaled that of the disco ball spinning overhead. He reached for a multicolored bouquet of roses and delivered his familiar sermon preaching the beauties of diversity and acceptance in the face of racism and xenophobia, handing each of the stems to the outstretched palms of the front row and reminding the congregation to “never forget the black rose.” He dipped into the crowd to hug those closest to the stage at the conclusion of the show, and it took him longer than usual to get back — when the house music came on overhead, his tour manager was still waiting for Bradley to make his way back to the lip of the stage. The room didn’t want him to leave, and it seemed like he didn’t, either, as he waved with the grace of a royal before climbing the steps and calling it a night.
It’s a relief that those tour dates announced earlier this spring weren’t tentative — that Bradley is on top of his game in the wake of a terrifying ordeal, and that he’ll continue to shimmy, shake, and scream his way through festival season as planned (he played Governors Ball in New York the following day). Even screaming eagles need their rest every once in a while. Bradley, thankfully, is once again ready to soar.