26-year old Leon Bridges tonight reminded so many of us as to why we love music. Watching the Texas via Atlanta, Georgia soul-man on stage as his eyes flicker and his feet shuffle, all the while enthralling the near-capacity crowd with the most authentic display of blues and soul this side of the Mason-Dixon Line; only a stone-cold and joyless individual could leave the Olympia tonight without a song in their heart.
Opening with just his guitar and backing vocalist on ‘Better Man’, his band quickly followed with ringing similarities to Otis Redding and his band of Stax legends. This is no coincidence. Bridges is showing us why he is the natural successor to Redding and co. “Who loves their momma?” he asks, before a heartfelt rendition of ‘Lisa Sawyer’. Keeping sentimentality at the core he offers ‘Brown Skin Girl’as a testament to past loves. ‘Daisy Mae’ is an endorsement of love itself and as Richie Buckley’s saxophone solos, as rich in tone as Bridges’ voice, take centre stage. “I’m gonna take y’all to church. And I ain’t talkin ’bout no Hozier”, he insists before a show-stopping and outright demonically soulful version of ‘Twistin’ & Groovin’. From this point onwards Bridges has the crowd in his pocket. He sings Happy Birthday to one young fan who literally cannot stop her tears. He waves at another who swoons under his outstretched arm. Some new tracks are offed and even if this momentarily takes the night off the boil it’s not long before we’re back in full-on James Brown showman mode. Effortlessly switching between blaring, rhythmic, foot stomping soul and introspective ballads Bridges is never far away from popping the crowd. His otherwise shy demeanour giving way to the performer within.
For the most part the set tonight is uptempo and rivitting. When he says goodbye the standing ovation and deafening cries for him to return creates a sort of frenzied expectancy. When Bridges and his band return, after another solo outing with his guitar, there are no inhibitions to be seen as the crowd finally give back what they’ve been getting all night. It’s an all out party and the smiles on the faces of nearly everyone leave an indelible mark on Bridges. Clearly moved by the response he receives after ‘River’ he shuffles tentatively to his band mates and whispers to each. One by one they takes turns to down a pint of Guinness and the crowd, naturally, start to lose it as the synchronised chants turn to screams. One member of the audience who may very well have had a few years on Bridges himself remarking that “it’s like going back in time by 50 years”. Girls screaming, boys gawking, security guards momentarily forgetting why they’re there in the first place, this is more than a bit special. Leon Bridges is the real deal.
Leon Bridges photographed for State by Mark Earley.