It’s hard to believe that only a couple of months ago I had never heard of Leon Bridges. Of course, the Fort Worth-based soul singer had already been doing things and beginning to make moves, but he somehow didn’t hit my radar until one of my favorite Mid-South venues, Tupelo’s Blue Canoe sent me an email in January triumphantly announcing that they had booked the up-and-coming young soul star in March, with all the enthusiasm of a record collector proudly showing off his newly-acquired copy of some rare 45 single. And the analogy is apt, because Leon Bridges and his band carefully craft the aesthetics of 1964-era classic soul and rhythm and blues (not R & B). His original compositions have that flavor, and even the appearance and dress style of him and his band members reinforce the retro feel. Not that this is entirely unprecedented, because the last few years have seen the emergence of a number of these types of groups, from Alabama Shakes to St. Paul and the Broken Bones, to J. C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound, to even James Hunter. And in some ways, Bridges and his band have points of similarity with all of that, and yet, Bridges is so young, his band so dynamic and tight, his compositions so personal (the newest released song “Lisa Sawyer” is a musical biography of his mother), his guitar playing so exquisite, that he is something at once familiar and yet brand new.
Freshly back from Europe, Bridges returned to the states with a Monday-night gig at Little Rock’s White Water Tavern, a venerable dive bar that happens to feature some of Arkansas’ best live music. It was in some ways a strange choice of venue, but Leon Bridges’ record label, Last Chance Records is based in Little Rock, and it was also a strange choice of night for a concert, but it is a tribute to Bridges’ rising popularity that the Monday night event was completely sold out, and he played to a standing-room-only crowd.
The building blocks of Leon’s magic are astoundingly simple. His band consists of guitar (two of them when he plays), bass, drums, a saxophonist and three female singers. His voice exudes a youthful naivety and innocence that is eminently appealing, and as he sings of his desire to “come home” to his sweetheart, you could almost imagine that you had been transported back to 1965. While only three songs are currently available commercially, Bridges performed far more on this night, with moods that ran the gamut from 6/8 soul ballads to 1950’s R & B, and lyrics that frequently mention the Mississippi River, New Orleans, even being washed clean from sins, the timeless themes of the South, white or Black. At show’s end, it was hard to imagine that the smiling, humble kid we were meeting is a star, but his single “Coming Home” was the most-donwloaded song in the world last week. And that suggests something exciting- perhaps soul music is finally “coming home.”
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