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Life’s a story

Daily Staff Report
Special to the DailyRobert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise brings a little bit of Americana to Vail. They play 8150 tonight.
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When Robert Bradley says, “Everything this band does is a story. Each song has its own story – hell, when we go out to eat it’s a story,” he means it.But Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise’s stories all flow from the source – Bradley himself, and his distinctive voice. With making music the only constant, Bradley has found his muse from coast-to-coast and has drank from the well of American music – from R&B to gospel, rock ‘n’ roll to country. The result is Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, an ongoing trip down the river of American music that embodies Bradley’s approach to listening to the world with open ears.Born in Evergreen, Ala., in 1950, he was one of 14 children and born sightless. Bradley began singing and performing early. His first performance experiences were singing in church on Sundays with groups of older performers such as Five Blind Boys, who at the time were making the gospel rounds. They’d pay him a quarter, earning him a Baby Ruth and a Coke.While at the Alabama School for the Blind, he also found that you didn’t have to be a virtuoso player to move people with your music. “I knew a few chords and I had rhythm and time,” he says of his early performances. “I don’t care how good you are – if you don’t have time and rhythm you don’t have anything.”Bradley’s family moved to Detroit in 1966. For a young music lover, this was fortuitous timing. He was able to immerse himself in the city that produced not only the Motown sound, but also such urban blues sounds as John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun’.” Detroit was also the home of a nascent rock ‘n’ roll scene that was about to burst into the national spotlight.From the time of his return to Motown in the late ’70s until very recently, Bradley could be found busking every weekend in Detroit’s Eastern Market. It was here that Blackwater Surprise drummer Jeff Fowlkes first heard Bradley and brought him to the attention of former Blackwater Surprise bandmates Michael and Andrew Nehra, who had been laying down tracks in their nearby studio.The story is legendary – Fowlkes and the Nehras invited Bradley up to the studio. Bradley was reticent at first. But the chemistry was irresistible, with the players who would comprise Blackwater Surprise finding a groove behind Bradley’s soulful singing and fleshing out and complementing his bare-bones song structures.”By playing songs all day long you can get it in your head so it’s there forever,” says Bradley. “You learn how to do it one time, play it over and over and then it just sticks. Over the years I wrote maybe 1,000 songs. Writing songs comes easy to me.”Over the course of his career (and three studio albums over the past half-decade), it’s become clear that Bradley is a singer-songwriter in the classic mode – cutting to the heart of a story, telling it in his own voice.”When you’re not just plain gifted as a musician it makes it a lot easier to write your own songs,” he says. “Studio musicians – they’re awesome but when it comes down to writing a hit, they just can’t do it. They’re the players. If they could sing they wouldn’t need me. If I could play, I wouldn’t need them. One hand washes the other.”Bradley and Fowlkes are the only two remaining of the original Blackwater Surprise. The new line-up, including Matt Ruffino, Tom Wiber and Randy Sly are heard on their new release, “New Ground.””I think that we’ve kicked it into another gear that we thought might exist,” says Fowlkes. “But we’ve definitely found that “sixth gear.'”Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise plays at 8150 at 10 p.m.


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