Surprise Party 

Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise brings a new sound on New Ground.

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Robert Bradley’s getting called on a few things lately. His band, the Blackwater Surprise, has undergone a three-member makeover, as has the music. Where before, his R&B (here, the R represents rock and rhythm) was of a rougher sort, it wears a pop sheen on his third release, New Ground. And though it’s indubitably his finest effort, some finicky fans and critics have still sniveled. Now, he might have deserved a swat for the Kid Rock cameo on his last record, Time to Discover (it’s like finding a Baby Ruth in your pool), but not now. That said, let’s have him explain the Kid Rock thing and move on to New Ground.

“Uh … that was some of the other guys [in the band],” he says from a San Diego hotel. “He was a friend of theirs and he recorded at their studio. He heard the track and he just wanted to do that. You know, it’s not my type of thing, but he’s alright.”

Our judges say that’s OK. The “other guys” happened to be Michael and Andrew Nehra, Detroit musician/producers and charter members of the Blackwater Surprise, which formed when drummer Jeff Fowlkes, with whom they’d been playing, raved about Bradley, a busker he’d befriended. The brothers originally planned to work in a studio/session capacity, but signed on as members when RCA Records proffered a deal.

RBBS released two acclaimed studio albums (a self-titled 1996 debut; Time to Discover followed four years later) and a live EP that garnered critical acclaim and a devout fan base. When RCA jettisoned the band last year, the Nehra brothers returned to production work. “They wanted to go back and do their own thing, and I said, ‘Well, fine and good.’ Jeff Fowlkes, he stayed with me, and I knew a few guys [bassist Tommy Wilber, guitarist Matt Ruffino and keyboardist Randall Sly; guitarist Russ Epker joined after the album] and got them together and we’re back out there doin’ it for real.”

Bradley is pleased with the band, joking “I might not have to change nobody for a while,” and his new label, Vanguard Records, which is known for giving songwriters a place to create unencumbered. “[RCA] never got it. And I was glad they didn’t because now I can do what I wanna do instead of doin’ what somebody else wants me to do.”

When the revamped Blackwater Surprise commenced writing, two factors were in the foreground: Bradley’s love of pop music and a desire to reach a broader audience—partly for money and partly to show a contemporary band can do the rock and R&B mix properly. To that end, producer Jay Joyce (John Hiatt, Patty Griffin, Rubyhorse) was enlisted. The completed record would sport an appropriate, telling title: New Ground.

“Music keep evolvin’ and I want to bring a new sound into it. That’s why the name is Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise. There’s always goin’ to be somethin’ different about what we do. It’s goin’ to be a surprise to us and it’s goin’ to be a surprise for others.”

The element of surprise is likely what shocked people into slagging New Ground. The opening strains of first single/lead track “Train” set a decidedly sunnier tone from the first two albums. Many of the ensuing tracks (“Lindy,” a shout-out to departed musicians; “See Her,” a gospel tune about a woman; the twangy “Willie Lee;” the spare, lilting ballad “Exist For Love”) stray from the funk & roll of RBBS’ past. Still, Bradley’s fervent, gravelly vocals and candid lyrics retain spark and appeal. And other tunes, such as the stark, funky anthem, “Profile,” and the classic, earthy acoustic tune “Young Girls” demonstrate that, while New Ground might be a change-up, the source is as pure as ever.

“I’m not goin’ that far away. But the dynamic, and the fact of the matter is, you need to appeal to as many people as you can. Stay in this dream world if you want to, but the reality of it is, the bills keep comin’. Sometimes we have to go in a little more radio-friendly sound to get the word out. Plus, I like pop music. I don’t got no hang-ups like that. We’re just tryin’ to spread peace, love, joy and happiness to as many people as possible.”

Live, Bradley conjures Ray Charles’ charm and vigor, Otis Redding’s soul, and injects humor at all turns. “I like to joke around. I’m a Richard Pryor fan, Redd Foxx … you know what I mean? I think people should laugh.” And another thing: Unlike other blind musicians like Charles, Jeff Healey and Stevie Wonder, Bradley gets up and gets down.

“I got to move,” he enthuses. “I can’t sit there. What I’m doin,’ I’m doin’ from my soul and from my heart and I can’t sit down. That’s the reason why I don’t play that much on stage. I’ll forget about the playin’ and be singin’ too much. And I’ll sing too much and forget about playin’ [laughs].”

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More by Randy Harward

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