Leon Bridges thanks Grace for supporting his show. “She’s a sweetheart,” he says, “she even has a masseuse on the road”. He covers the touring essentials, and tells everyone that tonight’s show in Bristol will bring the house down, “like we did last time”. His person is gentle, and his music characterised by unabashed soul, but somewhere in between these traits operates an infectious shyness that was quietly brushed to one side as he can’t help but smile to the packed out Anson Rooms.
Having been told the music would commence at 19:30, the impossible-to-Google Grace’s appearance at 20:25 was welcomed with as much exasperation as gratitude. It turns out our naivety extended to Australian waters, where she’s actually quite well known, performing a strong setlist existing somewhere in the peripheries of Adele and Amy Winehouse. Embracing the similarities, she flew through several well-received songs to a cover of ‘Valerie’. This performance was fully upstaged by the next song, sounding like a Kygo remix of Glass Animals, twanging guitars and heavy beat pads lifting the crowd immensely. She reveals she’s played on a Nina Simone tribute album with Usher, has worked with Quincy Jones on a remake of Lesley Gore’s 1963 classic ‘You Don’t Own Me’, and scats a little before leaving the stage to great appreciation.
Bridges is the man people came to see, though, other than Grace’s very loud Australian family at the front. Dressed in a sleek black suit, white shirt and beige tie, he is every part the image of the romanticised Northern Soul singer. Even his deep South origins of Fort Worth, Tx don’t stop him noticing the Bristol landmarks: “what’s up y’all Bristol Jeff?” (to the man with the unmissable excited blonde mop who’s seen a gig every night for the last 15 years.) He starts with a track not on the album, jiving around the stage like a man who had been performing for years, not just written ten songs in his bedroom to simply find himself there. ‘Brown Skin Girl’ follows alongside a small performance of Happy Birthday for a girl named Sarah – nice, if not a little prosaic.
“I wrote that song about my mother, but her favourite is still ‘coming home'”
Little spur of the moment ventures like this one continued, though, maybe showing just how inexperienced Bridges is on the road, or simply how the fame that he now undeniably has refuses to take him on. He is still as humble, as genuine, and as unscripted as any performer getting on the big stage for the first time would be. He cycles through hits ‘Better Man’ and ‘Flowers’ effortlessly, with not the most powerful voice, but with a very pure one. The odd occasion he slips out of tune detracts nothing whatsoever, and the musicians backing him seem to be just as receptive to him as we are. They know how good he is, and every faultless saxophone solo (‘Better Man’), jazzy drum interlude (‘Daisy Mae’) or tender backing vocal (‘Coming Home’), is performed in what seems to be a homage to him. Alongside a set design of a series of lamps that look like the spawn of industrial fans and Roman shields, and a claret silk curtain, Bridges has transformed a Students’ Union venue into an old school swing bar.
Heavy drum solos in “Smooth Sailin” split time signatures, fitting in with a confident conversational performance, speaking “I like the way” with more variation and cheekiness than the studio recordings dared, while Austin from White Denim on rhythm guitar used various layering on a semi-slide. The textures from the musicians behind Bridges are exceptional, and not overlooked despite his intense stage presence taking the majority of everyone’s attention, literally Twistin’ and Groovin’, covering all areas of the stage. Perhaps his most well known song ‘Coming Home’ was then performed in front of truly angelic lighting, while ‘Shine’ removed all transgressions, beautifully picking at the guitar before curtsying into a fully epic sound. He finishes off the section of album tracks with an ode to his mother (‘Lisa Sawyer’). He becomes comically sheepish for a moment: “I wrote that song about my mother… but her favourite is still ‘Coming Home'”.
Bridges launches into a slow speech, how he didn’t think when writing these songs in a shirt and boxers in his room, he’d end up touring the world. He says his band with him tonight are the same musicians that came together to record the album, and it’s clear just how together they all are. He ends with ‘River’, picking up an electric guitar himself, simply standing and singing. Behind, Jessie’s backing vocals are haunting, and when Bridges sings “surrender to the good Lord, and wipe your slate clean,” it was impossible not to feel the chills encompass every person in the room. A small backing interlude and Bridges returns with real powerhouse soulful vocals, out of character and painstakingly heartfelt.
A small encore of four songs completes a setlist of 20, an impressive catalogue for a man who’s only released one album. The evening was rounded off by five minutes of sheer crowd-play. Bridges dances around from left to right, grinning as a Hawaiian sliding guitar akin to the 1950s serenaders complements the groove. It was one of those evenings that was a complete celebration of a very talented musician. He even waits around for hours after the show talking to fans, taking pictures, and signing merchandise. This gesture completes a great evening of music, anecdotes and dance, for a sold out room which undoubtably recognises him as the leader of the soul revival.
Read our review of Leon Bridges’s debut album Coming Home here.