As sharp as Bridges’ vocals and songwriting ear are, he remains green as a stage performer.
On his debut album Coming Home, Leon Bridges sets the radio dial back decades, conjuring the vocal stylings of long dead soul icons like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. For anyone who has viewed the 25-year-old Texan’s expertly curated Instagram, it should come as no surprise he backs his throwback sound with a retro look that exudes the forefront of freshness from five decades ago. This leads one to ask: is this a highly stylized put-on designed to cash in on the same kind of revisionist fetishism that has swept over other musical genres in recent years or is this Bridges’ element?
Experiencing that honeyed voice and those high-waisted pants and short-sleeved Polo shirt, like I did at Music Hall of Williamsburg two weeks ago, failed to answer that question. If Bridges is faking it – ya know, the whole aw shucks, dead icons appreciation act – it’s hard to tell. To witness him at this point in his career is to witness someone employing past winning formulas in the present, and one who could conceivably mature into someone you tell your children or children’s children about decades in the future.
Bridges’ meteoric ascent as a headline attraction in New York City in 2015 – sold-out shows at Mercury Lounge, Music Hall of Williamsburg and Apollo Theater (coming in October) – has transformed him into both a hot ticket and a hard ticket to get. His rise is the result of a perfect storm – transcendent talent who taps nostalgia meets marketing blitz bankrolled by a major label meets a city of music fans eager to witness the next big thing.
One week after his highly anticipated record Coming Home was released, Bridges brought the record to life in Brooklyn with a seven-member band that included guitars, percussion, the exquisite backing vocals of Brittni Jessie, biographical snippets about his family and the stirring sax of Jeff Dazey, all to enhance Bridges’ timeless production aesthetic.
As sharp as Bridges’ vocals and songwriting ear are, he remains green as a stage performer. He uses his hands – open and reaching forward – as a means to connect with his songs and the audience but rarely strays far from his mic. When he spoke he did so with a practiced manner that felt like he was reading from a teleprompter, like when he gave a cliched statement that he aimed to “make you feel good.” He is young, and while his sound appears a finished product, he is still growing as a showman.
It’s worth mentioning, albeit potentially controversially, that at times Bridges was the third best performer on the stage – by no means a slight on him. Jessie was a revelation, a star in the making, her angelic vocals on the bridge of “River” a highlight of the show. Her harmonizing with Bridges on “Better Man” and the sped-up “Coming Home” blessed the crowd with an effortless beauty. Standing to Bridges’ left, Dazey’s sax delivered a touch of night-time to “Pull Away,” a sense of ferocity to the boogie-worthy “Smooth Sailin” and the sonic equivalent of a wind gust rolling off the Mississippi River on “Lisa Sawyer.”
Bridges’ live show, it turns, is more than just the man who seemingly landed in 2015 like a hologram from the past with a beating heartbeat. Whether he’s a true believer or not, Bridges’ retro-soul act has landed upon the sound of the moment in the sound of way back when. It doesn’t matter whether one day you’ll tell your grandkids about Leon Bridges. You should be telling your friends about him now.