Music » Critics' Picks

Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise

Wednesday, March 14. Blueberry Hill's Duck Room.


Robert Bradley was a blind busking blues-shouter in Detroit until alterna-rock kids Michael and Andrew Nehra turned on to him -- they allegedly had a "spiritual experience" while hearing his wail outside their recording studio -- as well they should have. With a voice of unchecked instinct and improvised songs of unapologetic faith -- in God, in sex, in all manner of human communion -- Bradley mows down the irony, cynicism, self-absorption and technical calculation that make our current musical landscape so cramped and trivial. He growls like Van Morrison, moans like Wilson Pickett and hollers like Ted Hawkins. And, amazingly enough, the Nehras (who had been making garage-pop with Second Self) have known just how to handle the passion. With a singer this forceful, there's only one thing to do: Get down, give in and see where the groove takes you. Along the way, Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise has found the spiritual rejuvenation promised by soul music (be it in Philly, Muscle Shoals or Detroit) and the one-time-one-night freedom of rock & roll of any time or place.If Bradley's slurred, punch-drunk phrasing sometimes makes a Rorschach test of whatever lyrics he might be singing, that's the street singer's prerogative. There's no mistaking the emotion. At the peaks of songs like "California," "For the Night" and the amazing "Ultimate Sacrifice," he enters a perfectly believable trance state and pulls Blackwater Surprise -- part Booker T. and the MGs, part Caledonia Soul Orchestra -- into one churning, muddy, yet ultimately refreshing, river of soul.

If you're thinking this sounds too good to be true, or at least too good to last, you may be right. Despite the band's strong young fanbase, RCA has ditched Blackwater Surprise, and the Nehra brothers have moved on to other projects. Bradley has regrouped, adding ex-Shannon Curfman bassist Tom Wilbur and Detroit veterans Randy Sly on keys and Matt Rufino on guitar. But it's Bradley's voice that makes Blackwater Surprise's club debut such an exciting prospect. That voice, born in the churches and on the streets, carries a spirit of community in every moan and shout. It's the voice of a singer who believes his audience, against all odds, really could be everyone.

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