“Do you feel like going to church?” Charles Bradley asked a packed crowd of SXSW day partiers in Austin. Preaching the gospel of soul and message of unity, Charles Bradley transformed Friday afternoon’s Rolling Stone Rock Room into a tabernacle.
Boasting the best moves at SXSW and donning an indigo jumpsuit encrusted with the glittering skull of a sphinx, the 64-year-old former James Brown impersonator twirled to the beat of his greasy R&B backing Menahan Street Band like untethered twine, before dropping to the ground and pulling himself back up by an invisible rope during the hard-driving funk frenzy “Confusion,” off his upcoming LP Victim of Love.
If that weren’t impressive enough, Bradley, the “Screaming Eagle of Soul,” thanked the crowd for making his dreams come true at his age, then pulverized heartstrings by singing his life story on the ruminative “Why Is It So Hard” (“To Make It in America”). With a sky-reaching croon cutting like a knife, Bradley clenched his face in world-worn anguish, outstretched his arms and let out a yearning Wilson Pickett-worthy scream from the guts. Though the Godfather of Soul is dead, in Bradley his playbook is alive and well.
Hours earlier, Fitz and the Tantrums brought their own anthemic indie-R&B to the Rock Room. “We love Austin more than any other city in this country,” frontman Michael Fitzpatrick said from the stage. “This is where we got our record deal.”
It was all sprightly sounds and good vibes as Fitzpatrick and singer Noelle Scaggs tag-teamed the crowd like a well-oiled hype machine during barn-burners like “Don’t Gotta Work It Out,” “The Power of Love” and set-closer “The Walker,” a song from he band’s new album, More Than Just a Dream. Fitzpatrick recently described it to Rolling Stone as “a nice mixture, with a funky sax breakdown and a nice Eighties clap sound — it reminds me of the Beastie Boys’ first record.”
In contrast to the audience-wide dance-off Fitz and the Tantrums inspired, the eternally youthful Thurston Moore had heads nodding along in approval of his raw, abrasive and exponentially more cerebral Chelsea Light Moving. Though the future of Moore’s other band, Sonic Youth, is uncertain, Moore proved his perennial status as the most singular guitar god when it comes to beautifully ugly noise-rock.” And to compliment, Moore entered a parallel punk dimension during the careening rocker “Burroughs.”
And it was one rock statesman after another: indelible Animals frontman Eric Burdon followed Chelsea Light Moving and wasted no time amping the party vibe up to 11, opening with his War classic, “Spill the Wine” backed by a nut-tight seven-piece band. Rocking a silver crew cut, shades, dog tags and a black T-shirt bearing a peace symbol, Burdon showed his blood-and-cuts croon is in fine form as he howled like – well, an animal on a savage performance of “Black Dog,” the single he cut with the Greenhornes last year. Seamlessly, the song’s closing downbeat cued the bassline to “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” bringing back fond memories of Burdon’s surprise guest spot with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at SXSW last year.
Of course, the crowd wouldn’t let Burdon out alive without hearing him deliver his definitive version of “House of the Rising Sun,” which he did with gusto. Burdon was most animated when belting out cuts like the blues-rock scorcher “Water” and the moody lovesick ballad “Wait,” from his new LP ‘Til Your River Runs Dry.
“You are the Egg Man!” an excited fan shouted from the crowd at the end of the set. “I AM the Egg Man!” Burdon, exiting the stage, shouted back.