MANCHESTER, Tenn. - When fiery singer Charles Bradley — "the original screaming eagle of soul" — jogs on stage and grabs the microphone, he's looking for a real connection.
"First I go into my spiritual moment and I just close my eyes and pray while I'll be singing, and once something hits me in the heart, I open my eyes and I look into the public's eye and I feel it," Bradley said. "I think it's the Holy Ghost spiritually inside of me that's trying to show the love, not just me being an entertainer but a real person to let others know that I care."
Bradley made his debut Saturday at Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival's biggest stage. He led a soul invasion at the annual gathering, reflecting a new interest in the progressive sound that used to sit atop American pop charts but largely fell out of favour in the age of hip-hop and modern R&B.
Other soul acts on the bill displayed the genre's 21st-century diversity — Bradley's Daptone labelmate Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Sweden's Little Dragon and News Orleans' The Soul Rebels.
Bradley showed everyone how it was done in a mind-blowing 60-minute set that featured a costume change, James Brown-style moves and pelvic gyrations, all topped off by a trip into the crowd to shake hands with as many people he could as his set wound down.
After his six-piece hipster band got the crowd warmed up with a couple of instrumental numbers, Bradley sprinted on stage in a white suit with bedazzled lapels.
Quickly, he threw his mic stand to the stage floor, whipped it back up by the cable, then crouched as he wailed into the microphone. Midway through his set he jogged off the massive stage and made the 100-yard run down a ramp and to his trailer for a quick change into gold pants and a black shirt open all the way to an eye-catching dragon's head belt buckle. He was back on stage by the end of his band's instrumental number, visibly winded but ready for more as he launched into an unexpected cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold."
The crowd of several hundred fans that caught his early set time Saturday afternoon had many converts to Bradley's old-school sound. A survivor who worked menial jobs over the years to support his dream of being a singer, Bradley didn't get his break till he signed with Daptone Records, which put out his album "No Time for Dreaming" in 2011.
He thinks you can hear the years of frustration when he leans into one of his songs.
"I think soul music has come from the hurt, the pains, the times when I couldn't speak out and say what's on my mind," Bradley said in an interview before his show. "It would just go inside internally and rest, and I'd moan and I'd groan. That's why you see a lot people go to a Baptist church and they go crazy and make themselves free. That's because that was the only place that you have to let your spirit out. And now I think the world wants to know more about this because there's a lot of truth in that."
The new soul movement goes beyond revivalism. Little Dragon takes the sounds familiar in Bradley's day and processes them for the 21st century. The Swedish electronic quartet, whose breakthrough album "Ritual Union" earned a lot of attention in 2011, uses very different means to arrive at a similar emotion and feel as more traditional purveyors of soul.
"Somehow it started more as an influence from hip-hop like De La Soul and as you kind of mature you're brave enough to start listening to softer music like soul," Little Dragon drummer Erik Bodin said. "You know, the beats are still there. It's more about a rhythm connection as a start to the soul world."
From there they build in their own experiences, taking a very Scandinavian look at what was once a purely American art form.
"It's endless and there's so much to be inspired from there," singer Yukimi Nagano said. "I think definitely for us it's taking all the elements that we love and we want to do something we like. ... We're from Gothenburg. We have our own experiences. It's a different culture than America or like being from Detroit."