For the record, it’s the Lianne & Leon show.
Mr. Bridges made that very clear on Wednesday night for a room mixed with young and old faces. Skin tones hit every color. All the different cranial follicles, plus facial ones, were present and accounted for. The audience at Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall almost looked like modern day America, and they were all there to see one of the most buzzed about retro artists in music today. What’s more is that the attendees included a lot of people who told CL that they passed on seeing Kanye West play just 19 miles away at Tampa’s Amalie Arena.
For two-and-a-half hours, the 1,430 in attendance would be in for a treat.
On record, it’s admittedly take it or leave it with Lianne la Havas, but when the 27-year-old shinger is in front of a crowd there is no question about her talent. The London-based daughter of Jamaican & Greek parents is a godsend with a voice that seemed to be on cruise control as she conquered octave after octave, even on a captivating rework of Dionne Warwick's “ I Say A Little Prayer.” Her band is the stuff modern day soul daydreams are made of, and her set is was what winning over an audience with ease looks like. It’s safe to say that many in the almost capacity crowd will fall over at the chance to see her again.
The same return customer factor applies to Bridges, 27, too, and while his set was not as polished and jaw dropping as his nearly perfect 2015 LP, Coming Home, would suggest, the 19-songs he stitched together were a clear indication that the Fort Worth, Texas songwriter and soul revivalist has a chance to be the future of modern, classic R&B for years and years to come. It’s just a shame that he has to be so good, so soon.
Bridges has come out of virtually nowhere to end up signed to Columbia Records. The folklore says he was washing dishes at Del Frisco’s Grille before he being discovered at a bar by producer Austin Jenkins, whose girlfriend introduced the two because both Bridges and he had an affection for high-waisted Wrangler jeans. Jenkins went on to put Coming Home to tape, live and analog. He's now in Bridges’s touring outfit. He almost serves as the unofficial musical director for the troupe, and the band is where kinks in Bridges’s soul revivalist armor would start to show.
It’s not fair for Bridges to be forced to make the jump from open mics, to showcases, to concert halls like Ruth Eckerd so quickly. Bridges is a young man taking on a genre defined by more weathered men and women who’ve endured the kind of pain and heartache that only decades on Earth can start to present. Bridges and his band — who’ve clearly had his back since the jump — deserve to cut their teeth in smallish bars and clubs. They deserve to spend more time dealing with amps that are bleeding into one another, and they deserve to unwillingly bump into each other onstage too. They deserve to mess it up and not be spellbinding every night without almost 2,000 people watching. Bridges was sweating through the shoulders of his suit by the end of his 90-minute set on Wednesday, but these guys should’ve been given a year or two to sweat on each other onstage night in and night out That doesn’t mean what happened on Wednesday night wasn’t special.
The gang came out with jook joint force on set opener “Smooth Sailing,” but other selections like Coming Home highlight “Brown Skinned Girl” felt a tad under cooked and marked by a subtlety that suggested things might sound a lot tighter on October 5 when this leg of the tour wraps in Alabama. Bridges’s banter on set interlude “The Juice” wasn’t enough to whip the crowd into a frenzy either, but he’d give them plenty of reasons to appreciate his once-in-a-generation talent throughout the night.
The man has admitted how much his style means to him. He shops at vintage clothing shops and wipes his face with a handkerchief. At first, it seems like the jacket and pants are way too big for him, like he accidentally purchased from the big & tall section. Then he dances. He shimmies, kind of effortlessly around the stage, elbows cocked at 90-degrees, head held high fingers locked and ready to snap. Then, it’s easy to realize that he needs that extra room in the pants to move. Bridges looks good in tailored suits, but he looks a thousand times better when he’s uninhibited on stage, dancing his cotdamn ass off.
He did that a ton on Wednesday, and encore closer “Mississippi Kisses” was a certified revival that found Bridges stalking the entire stage, jumping onto risers and hypnotizing everyone with his seemingly impossible dance moves. He drew waves of laughter when joking about how any girl who comes home to date him would have to ride around is his Ford Fusion.
“Seriously,” he said, “that’s what I drive.”
Those easy moments, where Bridges had the crowd in the palm of his hand, are why fans should, and will, keep coming back for more. He was captivating when slowed down and allowed to live within a song like he did on “Lisa Sawyer.” The lyrics — devoted to his mother — reveal a songwriter who listens more than he sings, and that’ll be what Leon needs to lean on when approaching his next album. He showcased that uncanny awareness again on “Twistin' & Groovin,” a cut about the love story between his grandparents.
Bridges is not a man for this time. He is not for a generation dependent on fast news and (sometimes) faster friends. There’s no Tinder or speed dating in Leon Land. There is only time and the feeling you get from taking your time with someone you think might grow to love.
Before kicking off “Shine,” Bridges told the crowd he was going to take them to church, and he did, thanks to a pristine vocal that no one in the modern age will ever touch any time soon. Still it didn’t feel complete, because he was obviously holding onto the soul saving for set closer “River.” With just a guitar in hand plus backup singer Brittni Jessie and the whir of the organ to back him up, Bridges delivered his simplest, most poignant song without pause.
It’s a cut about being lost and needing to be cleansed after committing crimes of the heart. He's earnest, but he's not hurting like the poorest of souls are.
It’s hard to believe that Bridges, in his young age and this early stage of his career, really feels a lot of guilt, but it’s easy to see yourself chasing him around and catching his concerts every chance you get because you can bet that one day his gospel is going to change your life.
Setlist: Leon Bridges — September 14, 2016 (Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater, Florida)
01. Smooth Sailin’
02. Outta Line
03. There She Goes
04. Pull Away
05. The Juice
06. Better Man
07. Golden Room
08. Lonely Road
09. Lisa Sawyer
10. Texas Sun
11. Hold On
13. Twinstin & Groovin’
15. Coming Home
19. Mississippi Kisses