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Blackwater Surprise Cover New Ground With Hip-Hop Blues

Since the release of Time to Discover in the spring of 2000, Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise have had their record label, manager and two of their founding members leave them. Bradley, the voice behind the 1997 hit “Once Upon a Time,” thought about hanging up his well-worn hat, until he realized he would not only be leaving his passion, he would be losing his vision.

“One of the great things about being in the music business and being blind is that you really get a chance to see,” Bradley, who was born blind, said Tuesday, the day his latest album hit shelves.

“Most blind people hang out with other blind people. Here I am always with sighted people. I’m on the road and they’re like, ‘Look at that, look at that.’ I say, ‘Don’t just say that, tell me what it is so I can get some joy out of it.’ I don’t care if it’s a blue sky, I want to know when it is clear or when it is cloudy. I want to know what kind of trees are those we’re passing, what’s out there. It’s like a window to the world being in this band. I enjoy a great time with these guys, ’cause they’re always looking at something. And they don’t always tell me, but I ask.”

When Michael and Andrew Nehra, the original guitarist and bassist of the Blackwater Surprise, told the band last year they wanted to spend less time on the road and more time with their families and in recording studios producing other bands, Bradley knew he had to find replacements if the band was to continue.

“For this band to work, you need to stay on the road,” Bradley said. “You have to keep spreading the word, ’cause we don’t know where this music is. It’s hard to label it. A lot of people say blues or whatever, but it’s just a mix.”

Bradley and drummer Jeff Fowlkes, who brought the soulful singer to the band after hearing him sing on a street corner, didn’t look far to replenish the Blackwater Surprise, recruiting guitar technician Matt Ruffino, road manager (and Shannon Curfman bassist) Tom Wilber and keyboardist Randy Sly.

Since the Nehra brothers had produced the band’s first two studio albums, 1996’s self-titled effort and Time to Discover (2000), Bradley and company had to find an outside producer and selected Jay Joyce (John Hiatt, Patty Griffin). At Joyce’s Nashville studio, the band worked on advancing its sound, a bluesy blend of rock and R&B that has won over fans from Dave Matthews, who took them on the road, to Kid Rock, a longtime friend and Detroit neighbor who appeared on Time to Discover and had the band on his Devil Without a Cause.

On their latest, New Ground, the Blackwater Surprise embrace pop and hip-hop styles, like the record scratches and haunting reverb on “Profile,” the groovy chorus (“Motion of the ocean/ Free my soul”) on “Ride My Wave,” and the conversational tone of “Lindy.”

“The reason we gave it the title New Ground is we’re using a little new, different types of things,” said Bradley, who turns 52 next week. “We wanted to get something for the younger people to come in and listen to, some real music, but use some things that they like to hear and kind of bring them in. ‘Cause there’s not too much real music left around. The labels are like an assembly line kind of thing. Hopefully, our old fans won’t get pissed off.”

To ensure that they wouldn’t abandon their loyal following, the Blackwater Surprise recorded a few of their signature love stories, like the heartache anthem “See Her” and the more hopeful “Young Girls.” Bradley even convinced the band to record “Born in America,” a song he wrote on the first day of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979.

With its snare drum rumble and chorus of “It’s so good to be born in America/ Where all men are free/ It’s so good to be born in America/ Home of the red, white and blue,” the song is fitting for a post-September 11 world. The song even pays tribute to the New York skyline, although it was recorded last June.

“I just thought it was a great thing that the military tried to go over there and get [the hostages],” Bradley said. “It has a lot more meaning to me after what happened [on September 11]. Maybe this song can uplift some people, ’cause we’re just trying to get out and spread a little love around.”

Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, whose current single is the rollicking “Train,” will spread the love on a national tour beginning in mid-March. Before then, the band will play in Royal Oak, Michigan, on February 8, and in Los Angeles on February 16.

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