Review: Leon Bridges stirs the soul in crisp, clean concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater
Dressed in his Sunday best, Leon Bridges jived his way to the microphone at center stage. It was his first performance in Tampa Bay, and the packed house at Ruth Eckerd Hall Wednesday night was on their feet.
Bridges, a 27-year-old musician hailing from Fort Worth, Texas, has a voice as crisp as a winter morning and a sound that makes you nostalgic for simpler times. His 2015 debut album Coming Home revived ‘50s and ‘60s soul and gospel with a long-forgotten sincerity.
His throwback motif unfolded in the peppy revival opener, Smooth Sailin’. Backed by a six-piece band including an organ, saxophone and singer Brittni Jessie, Bridges, clad in a grey suit and red tie, shimmied across the stage, invigorated by his own music.
And why wouldn’t he be? His songs are the very essence of him; they’re songs he told the crowd he wrote about his mother (Lisa Sawyer), his grandparents meeting (Twistin’ & Groovin’), a song dedicated to the brown-skinned woman (Brown Skin Girl) and a song about his beloved home state (Texas Sun).
He did a little ditty, The Juice, where he asked, “Does Clearwater got the juice?” And throughout the night, fans yelled, “I got the juice,” when they couldn’t stop grooving.
In a shout-out to the single ladies, he revealed, “If you choose me, we’ll go down to Fort Worth and get in my Ford Fusion -- yes, I rock a Ford Fusion -- and just cruise.”
Everything about his joyful candor reminded the crowd of times they didn’t know they were missing. His smooth vocal delivery peppered with a sultry cadence and G-rated dance moves carried the air of a true gentleman. His unreleased song, Hold On, embodied that notion perfectly: “I wish I could go back to the time, the time when things were good…I gotta hold on.”
Before performing his breakout hit, Coming Home, Bridges asked everyone in the audience “to do the hardest thing they’ve ever had to do,” which was turn to their neighbor and tell them you loved them. He added: “I wrote this song at my mom’s house. It’s a song that changed my life. It’s a song I never thought I’d play outside of Texas. It’s a love song; I love this song.”
He followed it up with a heartfelt, stripped-down rendition of River, with him on guitar, flanked by spotlights, and just backup vocals and the organ. However, “his momma would kill him” for what came next in the encore.
Yes, he’s a wholesome man who continually displayed his familial affections (e.g. shout out to his Uncle Kevin in the audience) but he’s also keen on fun, and gave a nod to his childhood inspiration, Ginuwine, with a saxophone-heavy cover of Pony. Naturally, it was tastefully arranged and executed. He traded in the Magic Mike dance moves for the Bridges’ tail-feather and a swagger all his own. By then, he’d sweated through his suit and continued into a high-energy 15-minute encore finale with Pussyfootin’ and Mississippi Kisses.
In contrast to Kanye West’s literal over-the-top concert production across the bay, Bridges’ regal style and soulful reprise kept it classy and focused on the music rather than antics or fanfare. His entire performance showcased his talent sans overproduction. He was noticeably humbled by his success and graciously acknowledged the collaborative nature of the band.
The golden-voiced opener, Lianne La Havas, complimented Bridges’ timeless quintessence with her soaring hits Green & Gold and Unstoppable. Together, the two performers created an evening of music that felt safe and familiar, with twinges of nostalgia, like the comfort of a warm breeze, ultimately leaving the crowd with a reminder of the purity of simple, fun and clean entertainment.
-- Stephanie Bolling