With a blind, 50-year-old African-American former street-singer fronting a group of white rockers in their 30s, Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise bridges genres as well as generations.
"I listened to everything, from Otis Redding to the Rolling Stones," frontman Robert Bradley said from the band's Detroit recording studio in late February, to explain its Sly and the Family Stone-style rock 'n' soul groove. "The other guys in the band loved soul, even though they were playing rock music."
The band's second album, Time to Discover, crosses those bridges even further, with rock-rapper Kid Rock supplying backing vocals on two songs.
The group will appear at the Detroit Music Awards, which Kid Rock will host, April 14. Then it will begin a nationwide tour lasting through the fall.
Born in Alabama, Bradley spent most of his adult life busking through the U.S., eventually making the Motor City his home in the 1980s. The rest of the band brothers Michael Nehra (guitarist) and Andrew Nehra (bassist), drummer Jeff Fowlkes and keyboardist Tim Diaz are all Detroit natives.
Oppportunity Knocks On Studio Door
The Nehras and Fowlkes first met Bradley in 1992, when they were in the grunge band Second Self. Bradley was outside the Nehras' recording studio, performing a street-corner mix of his own bluesy originals and covers of rock 'n' soul standards, when they heard his voice and guitar coming through the window.
"I was out there hustling, trying to pay the rent," Bradley said. "They were going to help me out and hook me up with some more guys, and then we started playing together."
Michael Nehra, 35, said he asked Bradley to record some acoustic tracks. Those songs impressed him so much, he asked the singer to record with the full band.
"He thought I was full of sh--," Nehra recalled from his Detroit home. "But then a few weeks later he called and said he wanted to do it."
For Bradley, being in a band after years of singing on the streets, calling his own shots and traveling from town to town took some getting used to.
"You could go sing ... when you want to and leave when you want to," he said. "And you didn't have to be onstage at 8."
Headed In The Same Direction
Even though his band wasn't consciously looking to change its style, Nehra said taking on Bradley and shifting to a more soul-based sound was a logical move.
"I've always loved Al Green and Sly Stone," Nehra said. "And Robert's always loved the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin." They soon went from covering the classics to playing songs Bradley had written.
Bradley's tunes include "California," reminiscent of Zeppelin's gentler side, and "Trouble Brother" (RealAudio excerpt), which echoes Aretha Franklin's gospel-influenced soul. Both ended up on the band's eponymous 1996 debut.
While that album featured a raw, live-in-the-studio feel many of its songs were first takes, Nehra said Time To Discover has a more polished, cleaner sound. It also covers more stylistic ground, from the hard funk of "Higher" to "Mr. Tony," on which synthesized strings and Bradley's falsetto recall classic early-'70s Philadelphia soul. The album also features ballads, such as "You & Me," and Stones-like, midtempo rockers, such as the title track.
Bradley's lyrics, which focus on romantic relationships and the need to be strong in a hard-luck world, come straight out of traditional R&B. "Gambler" (RealAudio excerpt) paints a lyrical picture of a world where someone's always out to get you: "They never see a day of light/ They like to deal in the night/ They like to gamble in the street/ They like to gamble with your life."
Kid Rock Returns The Favor
Fellow Detroit native Kid Rock's appearance on "Higher" and "Tramp 2" (RealAudio excerpt) grew out of a visit he made to the band's studio in spring 1999. The musicians had been friends since the early 1990s, and Bradley appeared on Kid Rock's 1998 Devil Without a Cause album.
Andrew Nehra, 28, said they played some rough mixes for Kid Rock, and one song, "Tramp," stuck out in the latter's mind.
"[Kid Rock] called me the next morning and said, 'I'm going to make your first hit'," Nehra said. "He said he woke up hearing the song, finally realized what it was, and came up with a new rendition that turned into 'Tramp 2'." Kid Rock (born Robert Ritchie) added a falsetto line reminiscent of Mick Jagger's singing on the Rolling Stones' "Waiting on a Friend."
The original "Tramp" appears on Time to Discover as a "hidden" track at the disc's end.
Bradley said he knows some might accuse the band of trying to capitalize on Kid Rock's fame, but he said it's all about their friendship. "Hell, we used to work on songs in his basement," Bradley said. "We used to hang out and go to the ti--y bars together. Bob's cool."