Leon Bridges has the charm and geniality of a man who has been performing in front of large audiences for a lifetime; that much is clear from the moment he shuffles on to the stage and greets his audience with “Nice to meet ya!” In reality, the Grammy nominee was signed just over a year ago after spending his days working as a dishwasher and his evenings performing to fewer than twenty people at Open Mic Nights around Forth Worth, Texas. Tonight, accompanied by his incredibly talented six-piece band on the intimate Corner Hotel stage in Melbourne, one can’t help but feel that now he is exactly where he was meant to be the entire time.
The set has kicked off with Flowers and after a quick address of the audience, Shine follows. Before launching into the third song of the night, Bridges warns his audience that they should hold on to their “boo things” should they not want to end up writing songs like Better Man. The sentiment is lovely, but by goodness if trying to make up after a break up results in songs such as this, then maybe it isn’t such a bad thing.
Those who have previously seen him live know the stories that go with a fair few of the songs. Twistin’ & Groovin’ , the song about Bridges’s grandparents’ first meeting is introduced with their story as it always is, that is until Bridges adds an impromptu “he was like ‘wow-ee!'” much to the surprise and delight of both the band and the audience. When the song – referencing “long brown legs” and some serious twisting – is over, Bridges, still laughing at his earlier exclamation, repeats, “He was like ‘wow-ee!'” with a grin and a shake of his head.
Of course, the title and lead track of his debut album Coming Home is a crowd favourite and ignites the first proper sing along of the night. A true showman, Bridges tells the audience that he’s forgotten the lyrics, and everyone is champing at the bit to help him out.
Bridges has said in interviews that he doesn’t like to write flashy soul music – and he doesn’t. Instead, his throwback to Southern Soul music is filtered through contemporary authenticity and filled to the brim with storytelling and spirit. In a live setting, Bridges’ all too brief debut album Coming Home turns into an extended, deluxe edition and if the sheer amount of sweat and jostling bodies is anything to go by, everybody is grateful. There are solos of every kind: guitar; saxophone; vocal; percussion; keys; even a quick one on bass. However, it is perhaps the stripped back River which garners the most attention of the entire set. Accompanied merely keys player and backing vocalist, Bridges plucks up his guitar for the first (and only) time tonight. With his audience captive and swaying, Bridges’ voice shines through the soft audience sing along; backing vocalist Brittni Jessie has her own moment towards the end of the song when the crowd quiets down for a moment. The set rounds out beautifully and the crowd shows appreciation with the eager anticipation of an encore.
Soon enough, one by one, members of the band – which on this stage seems even larger than six members – make their way back to their instruments and play Bridges in. Just the way he appeared at the start of the show, he dances his way over to his microphone to a roaring applause. Throughout the extensive encore, we are treated to Pussy Footin’ in the middle of which there is a pause that invites each section of the audience to dance their hearts out. In My Arms follows before things wrap up with the wonderfully fun Mississippi Kisses. That final song grows from casual, flirtatious jaunt into a full blown jam session that allows Bridges to move around to the very front of the stage where the crowd is gathered. The lack of barrier between the performance space and the floor allows him to dance with the audience quite literally. The night doesn’t end with the set and for a while, it’s difficult to find a clear path to the exit. This is because after a quick costume change, Bridges is headed straight out to the merch desk for a meet and greet. As we exit, there is a line winding around the dance-floor with fans clutching their 12 inches and posters, most of them still dancing on the spot.
There are a couple of things certain of tonight’s show: 1) Leon Bridges is a bonafide songwriter with performance chops to match and 2) he’s going to be coming back to Australia – sooner rather than later.