Leon Bridges put on a showstopping performance that came at the expense of his smooth soulful pedigree

It was a tumultuous evening.

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Ian Laidlaw

“This is not what I was expecting…” rang a lone voice in the crowd as the applause stopped after ‘If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)’, the opening song of Leon Bridges’s set. And it’s not hard to understand this woman’s confusion. On record, Bridges is the purveyor of smooth, lounge-pop; with a voice that is a soulful throwback to '60s doo-wop artists like The Marvellos and a pop architecture that slyly allows his marketing team to pitch to both triple j and Smooth FM.

But the man standing on stage at The Palais Theatre was no lounge act. Dressed as if Jamiroquai and Frank Ocean had a Fashion Week collaboration collection, Bridges had inexplicably entered party mode for the evening. Grooving across the gigantic stage with a seven-piece band behind him, the Fort Worth native filled the sometimes travelled divide between artist and performer.

On a sweltering 35 degree day, the historic theatre had been pre-heating and the crowd has little desire to boogie, but Bridges had other ideas as he constantly implored the crowd to roll their shoulders, bend their knees and move their hips.

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This disconnect between the crowd and the band had unfortunate knock-on effects for the evening’s performance. With his supremely talented blues ensemble, Bridges beefed up fan favourites like ‘Brown Skin Girl’ and ‘Coming Home’ to an almost unrecognisable state; a shame considering their beautifully sparse original arrangements. Sometimes simple is best and that is what was missing. The world has enough pop stars, we don’t also need our best soulful crooners to be urging us out of our chairs and teaching us dance moves.

It was a bit disappointing because the truly transcendental moments were consistently undercut by cringe-worthy showboating moments like him urging different parts of the crowd to make noise so he could see which area could cheer the loudest. It’s obvious from these crutches that whatever rhythm Bridges had in his music and his dancing shoes, he lacked it in crafting a cohesive performance; too easily falling into a fast one, slow one, fast one routine and an impersonal “this one’s for the lovers”, “this one’s for the single ladies” shtick.

But despite these issues, there is no doubt the man can hit a note. ‘Beyond’ is the smartest move he’s made so far in his career. Destined to be played at weddings in perpetuity, it is his future gold mine and judging by the bellowing echo from the crowd, he lands it with aplomb. ‘Georgia to Texas’ succeeds through its sheer ambition, deftly balancing off-beat percussion with a slinking double bass and an alto saxophone solo that soars through the theatre. It’s an adventurous songwriting blueprint that Bridges should follow more in future, as the pop-blues-by-numbers game can get tired by album number three.

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He covers most bases across his debut Coming Home and last year’s Good Thing, but you could sense the pride Leon has in his latest work as he performed generous renditions of ‘Shy’, ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Forgive You’ with virtuosic blues wig-outs. But towards the end of the night, the restless crowd had only one song on their mind. “Play ‘River’!” was embarrassingly heard across the crowd, as if the man wasn’t going to play a song that has over 100 million hits on Spotify. But when it arrived, it was worth the wait.

With backing singer Brittni Jessie on vocal harmonies, a song that could lay claim to be one of the best love songs of this century lit up and melted what was left of the overheated crowd. The best love songs are never about love itself and so too it is with ‘River’, a spectacular declaration of vulnerability and the fear of acceptance we bring into our relationships.

It’s a silver bullet for an otherwise schizophrenic set, but it’s an undeniably beautiful way to end an evening nonetheless.

Highlight: ‘Bad Bad News’ must be up there for song of 2018.

Lowlight: Someone in the crowd actually starting an “AUSSIE! AUSSIE! AUSSIE!” chant.

Crowd Favourite: The mesmeric ‘River’.