Robert Bradley

What About That: New Year's Eve in Bloomington

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This double-live set recorded in Bloomington, Indiana on New Years Eve 2005, by Robert Bradley's Surprise features Detroit street-singer-soulman Robert Bradley in front of a relatively enormous crew. From the jump it should be noted that Bradley's original backing band, the real Blackwater Surprise (the guys who gave it that name from Detroit; you can find their worthy names -- Andrew and Michael Nehra, Tim Diaz, and Jeff Fowlkes -- in half of the songwriting credits here) are nowhere present, and hadn't been around for some time. Bradley should have, at the very least morally, changed the name of his backing group. Period. The misnomered four piece here are enlivened by a boatload of special guests including no less than four backing vocalists, a pair of percussionists, and Matt Besey on guitar. The original band didn't need all these trappings. Okay, as for the music, half the cuts were taken from Bradley's first two albums with Blackwater Surprise; on the last two, Fowlkes made guest appearances; the rest come from the latter two. Bradley is a solid performer. His tough, gritty soul voice is rooted deeply in the blues and gospel, and his fronting this sweet-singing backing chorus is a natural fit. Tracks like "Time to Discover," that opens the entire proceeding, reveal him to be an expert showman. His bandmembers have listened to the Stax Volt records, but they are too polite. They're solid but not funky, and have very little grit. The trouble is that this sound allows Bradley too much leeway. If it weren't for the other vocalists, the music here would be downright thin. These guys would sound great in a studio, but here, even on barnburner covers like Joe South's "Games People Play," the band is graceful. "Shake It Off," on disc one, moves into some interesting territory, but it doesn't feel live except for Bradley's voice, which isn't concerned with anything but getting the tune across. "Bellybowl" is great but how could it not be with Bradley singing his signature tune? The second disc fares a bit better with a looser feel from the musicians. "Once Upon Time," works well, as does "Trouble Brother," but the most stunning thing on it is Bradley accompanying himself on "Still Lovin' You." The second disc is filled out with four soundcheck recordings that do nothing to add to what's here. What should have been raucous, raw, and wild is merely pleasant. It is articulate, literate, and polished. Too bad. For evidence of Bradley on a stage with a band that knows how to make him work, seek out the Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise Live EP.

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