Arts & Culture » Arts Stories & Interviews

Street-corner synergy



Jonny Lang, with Robert Bradley and Blackwater Surprise, House of Blues, February 28, 1998

MTV blues newbies will be groovin' that Johnny Lang is coming to the 'hood, but the blond wunderkind with the outsized, ballsy vocal chords has an opening act that will turn more than a few heads. People need to be aware of this.

Robert Bradley is one smokin', charismatic singer with a personal timeline that reads like a rags-to-riches story. The money just ain't there yet.

The condensed fairy tale begins with our hero, a blind busker, playing the streets of Detroit. He was riffing improvised wordplay, propelling urban soul rancheras via a voice like Archie Brownlee and Marvin Gaye reincarnated. One day he happens to park his act beneath the open window of a second-story studio where some local rockers were cutting tracks. His insistent, raw-souled shout plunged into the room with a vibrancy that encouraged the group to invite him up to jam a bit. They hit it off and melded their efforts.

Three years later, that jam has become an enterprise, with Bradley fronting four Motor City rockers a generation younger than him. Bradley and the dudes in Blackwater Surprise have a record contract with RCA, are making videos (the most recent one is for "Bellybone," the lead tune on their album) , and being interviewed by People magazine, albeit as the novelty feature of the month. Meanwhile, their PR portfolio is starting to swell with laudatory press reviews from gigs on the minichitlin circuit that introduces potential rock stars.

The sound causing all this commotion puts hardscrabble, street-corner philosophy alongside sensitive bar-band soul. At times there's a funky backbeat with an awesome afterburner. The lead voice alternates between smoke and honey, with variations on the former ranging from the slow burn to fire in the bedroom to an all-out conflagration.

While the band's debut is filled with fine tunes, there is nothing in them that prepares one for the live versions. In concert, songs like the Redding-esque "Way Back" and "Burn," with its Wayne Kramer/MC5 power-guitar chords, can develop an anthemic passion that mounts higher and higher. Their video for "Bellybone" showcases a new salacious metaphor at work in lyrics framed by rough Detroit guitar licks and buzzes a la Bob Seeger or John Lee Hooker, but a live performance is positively greasy with that thang. Unfortunately, given the sold-out show, the recording will have to suffice for many. But don't miss them next time.

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