You have to feel for Leon Bridges. The Texan soul singer faced some long odds at his RodeoHouston debut March 2. But he did it with style, and a smile.
Following recent Black Heritage Day entertainers like Usher, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige would be difficult enough. The 28-year-old Bridges has plenty of talent, but only one full-length album to his credit (2015’s Coming Home) and a fraction of those superstars’ popularity.
But since this year’s lineup was announced in early January, his spot has been at the center of a controversy over whether or not his music is, in a word, black enough for Black Heritage Day. (As a white man, that’s not my call to make — obviously.)
One theory holds that while white hipsters and music critics may love Bridges’ snappy ’60s-soul sound, programmers at black-oriented radio stations and other media outlets — perhaps less enamored of nostalgia — don’t. But neither side may fully fathom the gospel roots that nourish everything he does, despite “Flowers” or “Lisa Sawyer” (about his mom) being about all the evidence they’d ever need.
Anyhow, every year the rodeo’s talent buyers fill out the lineup based on a roulette wheel of availability, affordability and luck. Who knows how many names they crossed off this year before Bridges signed on? Maybe they just like his music.
In that they would not be alone. Bridges showed enough spark to suggest he’s been holding out on the people who have written him off as a simple Sam Cooke clone. Much more likely he’s just growing as an artist; this is a man whose second album is still in the future, probably later this year.
No sense in sugar-coating it: the announced attendance of 51,870 was down sharply from the previous few Black Heritage Days. The lower bowl was mostly full, the upper levels much less so. But to put that number in perspective, it’s barely 1,000 fewer than the considerably better-known Little Big Town drew Ferbruary 28. And it’s almost certainly one of the biggest non-festival audiences Bridges has ever seen.
As if he had a choice, the Fort Worth-raised singer’s set was heavy on Coming Home standouts: “Smooth Sailin’,” “Brown Skin Girls,” “Coming Home” and “Better Man.” All were sweet and snappy, as advertised.
The songs not off the album, like “The Juice,” were jazzier and splashier. Here Bridges nodded to a wider variety of influences than on his debut — “Superstition”-era Stevie Wonder, James Brown, New Edition, maybe a little Michael circa Off the Wall.
Dude can also write a slow jam, no problem.
To the crowd’s delight, he brought out none other Bun B for the UGK classic “One Day.” Singing the mournful hook, Bridges raised more than a few goosebumps while the Trill OG, basking in that never-ending H-Town love, capably handled the verses. Shame it didn’t go on longer.
Bridges’ main problem, but also one of his strengths, is his complete lack of camp. No wonder some people don’t quite know what to make of him. His band is first-rate and their close harmonies exceptional, especially backup singer Brittni Jessi. Even the songs that go a little light on drama are well-constructed. Sadly, absent any visual effects to speak of, they tended to get swallowed by the stadium.
But there were bright spots all the same. Near the end, the stirring “River” brought up the phones, a few to record and many more to illuminate the arena with their flashlights. “Twistin’ and Groovin’” was all good, clean fun. And for the first time all night, closer “Mississippi Kisses” got a good number of folks up and dancing enthusiastically.
A few more songs like that and Bridges might fill up some of those empty seats next time.
Leon Bridges Setlist
Born to Lose
Brown Skin Girls
One Day w/Bun B (UGK cover)
First Good Time
Twistin & Groovin’