Leon Bridges breathes new life into vintage soul sounds

As straightforward as a finger of bourbon, Leon Bridges delivered a solid but brief set of soul and blues tunes that eschewed flashy visuals of throbbing primary colours.

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BandAnna Photography

Preceded by his six-piece band, Bridges emerged wearing a cherry-red embroidered shirt and full cut red slacks, a change from the Sinatra-esque cream suit of his 2016 tour. Launching into ‘Smooth Sailin’, a groovy and unpretentious blues tune, Bridges soon had the Forum purring along like an expertly restored Cadillac. This was followed by his recent single ‘Bad Bad News’, a satiny, soul track that spread across the room like ripples in honey.
‘The Juice’ had Bridges stalking back and forth across the edge of the stage like a tiger, followed by the smooth-bopping ‘Brown Skin Girl’, one of the many original songs from Bridges that you might swear you’ve heard before on a Sam Cooke or Johnnie Taylor album.
He followed up with ‘Coming Home’ and ‘Better Man’, two of the most-played tracks from his 2015 debut album. Deploying these ‘greatest hits’ in the first 30 minutes of the show confirmed Bridges’ confidence in his new material. The audience drank up these familiar tunes, harmonising without prompting.
Punctuated with a brief, joking-not-joking plug for his upcoming album Good Thing, Bridges moved into new territory, starting with ‘If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)’, a less nostalgia-tinted R&B piece gilded with twinkly synth hooks. The Forum burst into applause as Bridges broke into his trademark ultra-relaxed shuffle, something fans had clearly been anticipating. At this and other moments of ostensible high intensity, Bridges was so laidback he appeared almost vacant.
More material from Good Thing, including ‘Sky’ – a catchy tune studded with organ riffs – moved the gig further toward the modern. Then Bridges took a startling left-turn into the vintage with ‘Flowers’, a blast of unalloyed boogie-woogie redolent of Jimmy Forrest. Though Good Thing sounded solid on stage, the crowd was undeniably more moved by familiar tunes like ‘Flowers’.
After ‘Twistin’ & Groovin’ – a Berry-esque song fully explained by its title – Bridges ushered most of the band offstage and received his hollow-body Epiphone from a stagehand, before he delivered a stripped-down rendition of ‘River’, the gospel hit that put him on the map in 2015. This was a moment of communion with the audience, who sang Bridges’ slow-swaying hymn back at him as an anthem.
At the conclusion of ‘River’, without much of an outro and barely 50 minutes into the set, Bridges exited the stage and left some audience members visibly befuddled. Immediate roaring and stamping brought the band back into view, where they whipped the crowd into ecstasies with an energetic triple encore.
After an expansive and freewheeling rendition of ‘Mississippi Kisses’, Bridges closed with an impromptu reprise of ‘The Juice’, in which he pitted the dancing skills of the right, middle and left sides of the room. These instrumental-driven encores gave Bridges’ band – who had spent most of the evening standing discreetly to the side – a chance to draw some love from the crowd. Special recognition should go to vocalist Brittni Jessie, who handled the tambourine and bongos with rare hauteur.
Though all too short, this gig confirmed Bridges as a technically accomplished virtuoso of the vintage who doesn’t need bells and whistles to keep a crowd moving.
Highlight: The untempered boogie-woogie of ‘Flowers’.
Lowlight: The abrupt end of the gig after barely an hour.
Crowd favourite: ‘Brown Skin Girl’.