Leon Bridges’ openers have a way of winning over a crowd. London-based, Jamaican and Greek songwriter Lianne la Havas did it during a 2016 show at Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall, and on Thursday another U.K. artist, Jess Glynne, came right out of the gate ready to drop poppy, high-energy bombs — rife with big kick drums that propelled her thunderous vocal — during a 10-song set that even got a few fans up and out of their seats during Glynne’s Clean Bandit collaboration “Rather Be.” The 29-year-old and her seven-piece backing band did their jobs by bringing a big, happy, mood to her set, but opening acts have that luxury of meeting a crowd that has few, if any, expectations from a bill’s first performer.
Bridges, 29, also came armed with a septet of musicians onstage, but he did not arrive arm-in-arm with relative anonymity.
RELATED: Photos of Leon Bridges and Jess Glynne at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater — 04.18.19
The Fort Worth soul and R&B phenom arrived on the scene in 2015 with an old-school soul debut, Coming Home, which tickled the sensibilities of nostalgia seekers searching for a savior who could revive the sounds of the good old days when Sam Cooke played at the sock-hop or an Arthur Alexander LP spun on the family turntable. The effort, nominated for a Best R&B Album Grammy award, was chock full of promise. Bridges’ 2016 stop at Ruth Eckerd was uplifting, and it delivered on that sonic pact, but there were moments when the performance hinted that something even bigger might be in store for the young man who was sort of peerless when it came to making a classic sound modern again.
In 2018, after teaming up with producer Ricky Reed (who’s worked with pop, EDM and hip-hop stars like Lizzo, Meghan Trainor, Kesha, Galantis, Twenty One Pilots and even Hugh Jackman), Bridges gave fans his sophomore album, Good Thing. The record was a departure from the vintage sounds of Coming Home; in some ways, it alienated fans who’d become dependent on the retro feel of the old Leon, but in reality the record feels like a better representation of who Bridges really is. Plus, how could anyone really believe that a millennial who grew up on Ginuwine and Jodeci — and in the land of Texas rapper Big Tuck — wouldn’t eventually work more contemporary R&B and hip-hop sounds into his repertoire?
RELATED: Leon Bridges on the good vibes, new sound he’s bringing to Clearwater
On Thursday, in front of a nearly sold-out crowd, Bridges showed off that reinvention and re-introduced himself as an artist whose name we’ll be saying for a long, long time.
Smooth jazz licks shone in the opening bars of “Bad Bad News,” but the Good Thing track eventually gave way to a dance break that felt like a Marvin Gaye B-side or the bongo-driven jam from a lost live track from Santana’s 1969 performance at Woodstock (a coincidence since the Latin-rock pioneer was also in Tampa Bay on Thursday, playing a show 19 miles away at St. Petersburg’s Al Lang Field). “Mississippi Kisses” — which had already evolved into a revival by the time Bridges played Clearwater in 2016 — was a full on 12-bar blues rager, and Bridges’ band kicked up the tempo on Coming Home tracks like “Better Man” while adding foreign, almost tropicalia, flavor to the normally saccharine “Brown Skin Girl.”
Change was everywhere, from the phased guitar on “Lisa Sawyer” to the way Bridges’ band traded Rhodes whirrs for synth texture on an encore performance of “River.” More late-’70s guitar chucking sounds reared their funky heads on a run through a revamped “Lions,” and the band almost went to the disco on “You Don’t Know.” Bridges clearly has a gift for absorbing the sound and feel of music from the days gone by, but he and the band nearly missed the mark on “Forgive You,” their attempt at ‘80s balladry. That cut was the closest thing to a pee-break song during Bridge’s 90-minute set, 19-song, yet it was still delivered with meticulously-practiced precision and driven by a fearless quality that wasn’t so obvious in that performance from three years ago.
On Thursday, Bridges — with the help of a band that includes low key musical genius Brandon Marcel and longtime collaborator Britti Jesse on backup vocals — doubled down on the fresh sounds from the new album by adding trap-y hi-hats to the plucked stand up bass and sax from Good Thing ballad “Georgia to Texas,” and the unit did it to old songs by chopping up time signatures on Coming Home track “Lisa Sawyer.”
Some attendees had to be rattled by some of the reinterpretations on Thursday night, but as we all know, playing records at home is a good way to relieve favorite sounds from the albums we love. Live music is for living in a moment; it’s meant to stir up the chemical makeup inside of us for a couple of hours, and the best shows often to send listeners back out into the world wondering what the hell happened.
And it’s not like Bridges’ one-of-a-kind vocal wasn’t fully flexed either. The falsetto on new R&B classic “Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand” was devastating. The vocal runs on his bedroom-anthem “Mrs.” were just as succulent, and if his sterling voice were to all of a sudden give out one day, then we can rest assured that the Texas boy could make a fine living writing songs for Nashville’s country music machine (Bridges should’ve sold “Beyond” and made mountains of royalty money as some mainstream country artist sang that bonafide hit in sold-out sheds across the country).
Critics of the show will say that they barely recognized some of Bridges’ biggest hits, but this band probably won’t play these tunes the same way on the next tour they go on either (live album, please). What Clearwater witnessed on Thursday was the sight and sound of young man who has not just realized his talent, but decided to use every resource available to see where his journey (and the major labels who melt over talent like his) takes him. Songs, no matter how familiar, are going to molt and evolve in the hands of Bridges. And in this case, that’s far from bad news because an ever-changing Leon Bridges is a good, good thing indeed.
Listen to songs from the setlist via Spotify. Follow @CL_music on Twitter to get the most up-to-date music news. Subscribe to our newsletter, too.
Hold My Hand
Ain't Got Far To Go
Take Me Home
All I Am
I’ll Be There
If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)
Bad Bad News
Brown Skin Girl
Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand
Georgia to Texas
You Don't Know