Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise: New Ground

Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise
New Ground

Robert Bradley is going to keep writing songs and playing them whether you buy this CD or not. I know this because that is what Bradley was doing when there was no recording contract and no hope of one. Blind since birth, Bradley began his musical education at the Alabama School for the blind. After a brief stay in Detroit, Bradley moved to California and got married, eventually moving his family back to Alabama where he ran a state store for the blind while playing in local bands. When he and his wife divorced in the 1970s, Bradley hit the road, playing guitar and traveling to various American cities where he earned a living playing on the street for 18 years. Discovered by Michael and Andrew Nehra in Detroit, the group recorded a couple of albums and was generally acclaimed for their unique sound, largely based on Bradley’s voice and songwriting.

Now with Vanguard Records, Bradley has completely reformed the band, with drummer Jeff Fowlkes being the only holdover from the previous group. It would be nice to be able to report that New Ground does indeed cover ground the band hasn’t covered before, but this is just not the case. The group’s sound is blander than previously, and it’s as if by attempting to appeal to a larger audience Bradley has lost sight of what made the group unique: its mix of rock, soul, funk, gospel, and R&B. It’s difficult to understand Bradley’s lyrics much of the time, due to his unique singing style, but when they do surface clearly, it doesn’t take long to realize that they are fairly pedestrian material. For example, when Bradley reflects on his life and relationships on “Exist for Love” it’s hard not to wonder whether the results would be more interesting had a lyric-writing computer software program generated them. The band doesn’t help any; new guitarist Matt Ruffino, bassist Tom Wilber, and keyboard player Randy Sly don’t provide any originality or even surprises. Bradley’s voice is left to hold the listener’s interest completely, and though interesting, his vocal instrument is simply not up to the challenge. Bradley needs better material or at least more innovative backup musicians to make his vision come alive.

“Nightlife” is a perfect example, beginning pleasantly enough with a guitar riff that might not have been out of place on one of Van Morrison’s more commercial outings. Unfortunately, the song degenerates into a near-disco groove by the chorus, and the tale about a woman who no one can get close to because she digs the nightlife too much is a tad overused. “Ride My Wave” has a nice groove, but again, it is a little too average to sustain interest over nearly five and a half minutes, and the repeated lyric “Motion of the ocean / Motion of the ocean / Free my soul” is the stuff of high school poetry writing classes.

At the risk of sounding not only mean spirited by bashing a band led by a blind former street busker from Alabama but also downright unpatriotic, I will say that the final track on the album “Born in America” is the most mawkish track on the album. Apparently Bradley wrote it back in 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis, but I don’t need to tell anyone why it suddenly makes an appearance on New Ground. “New York City sky scraper tall / The LA Dodgers, they’re really playin’ the ball / The Colorado Rockies, they stand so high / I know Uncle Sam, oh Lord, will never cry!,” sings Bradley without a hint of embarrassment. Ouch!

If I’ve given the impression that New Ground is an unlistenable album that certainly isn’t my intention. There is nothing really unpleasant here, it’s simply that previous recordings, particularly Time to Discover hinted at a band who could take their synthesis of American musical styles and kick it up another couple of notches. I’m disappointed that Bradley has instead changed to a lineup that is highly competent but unimaginative. If Bradley’s voice captivates you and can hold your interest for an entire album, you will probably enjoy this disc quite a bit, and some of the songs (“Train” and “See Her” in particular) do stand out. But this isn’t where I thought Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise was headed, and I hope it turns out to be mostly a brief detour.

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