It’s a question that must drive record executives crazy: why do some performers destined for greatness garner little more than a shrug of the shoulders while other performers who on paper should land with a thud receive accolades and notoriety? The question could easily be applied to the modern soul performer Leon Bridges. Why does a singer/songwriter whose repertoire would have felt right at home in 1965 reap the enthusiasm of music listeners in 2016? It’s a mystery to me, but a pleasant one at that, as I had the chance to see Bridges and his terrific band perform at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee last Saturday night to a full house.
Bridges, riding high since the release of his debut album, Coming Home, has had a hell of a year, receiving radio play, appearing on Saturday Night Live and participating in a Ray Charles tribute at the White House. Sporting a gray suit, red tie and black shoes, Bridges oozed class at the Riverside, from his silky voice to the smooth dance moves he employed throughout the show. Opening with his best-known number (to me, at least), “Smooth Sailing,” he kicked off a string of short, uninterrupted songs reminiscent of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding before briefly addressing the audience. In addition to playing all ten tracks from his only album, he scattered a few new compositions along the way, plus a few standards, including a short version of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” a song that was surely unfamiliar to much of the largely 20-something audience, though there were several folks in the 40-70 age range. What was disappointingly absent from the audience was diversity in race. I thought the makeup would be a similar to the one who attended Stevie Wonder’s show last fall in Chicago, but at least for this particular show in Milwaukee, Bridges attracted a decidedly white crowd.
Bridges’s backing band was stellar, with all six musicians tasteful and selective in their approach. There were times when a song begged for a fuller horn section or larger group of backup singers, but in a way the sparser band has helped to define Bridges’s sound. Brittni Jessie’s backup singing is extremely exposed, with no one to lean on but herself, but there she was, weaving seamlessly in and out of the lead vocal lines. Sure, she leaned a little flat at times, but I love that her performance and the entire band’s performance was live – no backing tracks, no auto-tune – so a few missed pitches was cool with me. And when was the last time you heard a modern band employ a solo saxophone? For me it might have been Supertramp in 1985. It was nice to hear again.
Upon receiving his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, Billy Joel said, “And I know I’ve been referred to as derivative. Well, I’m damn guilty. I’m derivative as hell!” So is Leon Bridges. But as with Billy Joel, I argue, “Who gives a shit, as long as it’s good?” What’s surprising to me is how young people have latched on to a modern singer that harkens back so strongly to an earlier time. I imagine a few record executives are scratching their heads, wondering if 60s soul is a trend or a fleeting blip on the charts. Time will tell, but I sure hope Bridges sticks around for a while.