Imagine this. It’s a sundry West Coast night, and you and your honey are coming back from a movie. You park your car on the side of the road and decide to take your discussion to the back seat. What music should you put on to keep the groove going? Led Zeppelin IV? No, that might scare her. Prince’s 1999? No, you don’t want to appear like too much of a freak. Then you pull out Time to Discover (RCA Records) by Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, and from the first chinks and slinks of a kinky wah-wah guitar, the opaque vibrations from the organ, punchy bass, tribal congas and a touch of strings, you realized you made the right decision. Aww yeah.
It’s obvious that Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise has a bit of that magic touch. But there’s definitely more to this band than having a grasp of the groove. The band seems to have an idealism reminiscent of Sly & The Family Stone and the Jackson 5.
Robert Bradley’s grainy, grandpa vocals add to the pastiche, sounding lonely and rugged, conjuring images of an older traveled and desperate man – an image that Bradley fits perfectly. With such an idealistic vibe and growling folk-blues vocals, it’s ironic that Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise hails from, of all places, Detroit. Detroit, the motor city, the city that produced Ted Nugent and Iggy Pop, giving out a heartfelt love vibe? Believe it.
Time to Discover is the second record from Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise. The group began spontaneously four years ago when a local Detroit group, Second Shelf, heard Robert Bradley, a fixture of R&B bar groups for 20 years, and decided to crown him as its soulful front man. From its second gig opening for the Brian Setzer Orchestra, it was clear that this is a band with a genuine enthusiasm for the sounds it created and planned to go far with it.
They play with the energy of a garage band, and that energy and invigoration saturates Time to Discover. Their opening number, Higher, kicks it off with a dueling intro rap by Bradley and the one and only Kid Rock, another ambassador of music from the Motor City. Higher is the first single, and it brims with dynamics. It would make a good intro to a 1970s cop show, although Bradley has more of a bohemian spirit than a bard for men with guns and agendas. With his echoing earthy vocals sprinkling across the first few songs – Ride, Baby, Gambler, You & Me and Take Love and Receive It – it’s clear that he has heard his calling, and he wants you to hear it too. But even though it is Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, it is important to note that there are four other band members that make this album, which is very much a return to an older funkier flavor, that is so tasty.
With songs like Ride and You & Me, it is apparent that 20 years ago radio stations such as WBLS in New York would have been broadcasting this stuff all over the city. But, arrangements that might sound antiquated to the present day ear are rendered fresh by the talents of guitarist Michael Nehra, brother and bassist Andrew Nehra, organist Tim Diaz and drummer Jeff Fowlkes. Nehra and Nehra produced, arranged and mixed this album, so in many ways they are the driving forces behind the smooth and dynamic mix.
The first half of the album is well-produced, with a bass texture that reflects a Motown influence and a dazzling mix of gospel organ blasts and hard beats ? la Sly Stone and early Parliament. Jerry Garcia once said it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play and that holds true for this crew.
Still, where there is strength there is certainly weakness. The love vibe peters out by the end of this album. The groove falls a bit weaker as the tracks pave forward, leaving the band to grasp for modern R&B touches. Bradley’s vocals stretch for versatility and find it on songs like Mr. Tony and Tramp 2. But unfortunately this search finds them sounding a little like Bob Seeger & The Silver Bullet Band on songs such as Time to Discover and Ultimate Sacrifice.
Some may enjoy the evolution from the funky and slick to the heartland rock, but it leaves the record feeling incomplete. The mix also seems to change, gliding from the earlier more percussive songs to a modern day production that does to the group’s blues what it does to the Black Crowes, almost divorcing it from its vital street quality. It polishes the grit which yields it fit for FM radio consumption and erodes the band’s sound. Yet even when Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise treads on adult contemporary territory, it still manages to rip out some exciting steel and slide guitar solos that you wouldn’t expect to hear on pop radio.
There is a duality to this record that works for it and negates it. That duality springs both from the musicians and their surroundings. Surely it’s tough for the average music listener today to dig sounds that grew out of the sludge of the Mississippi delta. In turn, it’s difficult to mix a record that is a throw back to something that sounds so great, that pumps with enthusiasm and splice it with a production touch in 2000. It is for these reasons that the first half of this record is spectacular and the other half boggles your mind.
Was it a trick? No. It’s just the touch of a blues-based band in a post-modern age navigating difficult musical oceans, walking a tightrope. For some it might be a trip worthwhile, but where does it lead? Well, you will have to wait for future records from Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise to find out.