Introducing Leon Bridges to the audience for his first “Austin City Limits” taping, executive producer Terry Lickona noted that it’s been quite a week for soulful entertainers on the show, with Alabama Shakes in the house last Friday and Vintage Trouble on board this past Tuesday.
All based in soul music, yes, but the three artists reflect very different approaches and uses of the form. While the Shakes lay down an airtight groove for spectacular vocalist Brittany Howard to soar far beyond, and Vintage Trouble explodes like a powder keg ignited by frontman Ty Taylor’s propulsive shouts and show-stopping moves, Bridges plays it smooth, emphasizing the sweetness of soul.
It’s partly just the character of his voice: Bridges possesses the type of rich and fluid tenor that naturally gravitates toward a kinder, gentler artistic expression. It’s also just his demeanor: “Tonight, our goal is to make you feel good,” Bridges addressed the crowd early on in his hourlong performance at ACL Live. “We want you to leave happy.”
The vast majority of the crowd clearly did, blissing out as Bridges ran through all 10 songs from his 2015 breakthrough album “Coming Home” plus six more that may be destined for his next record. The tempo varied from the hushed balladry of the opening “River” (the only time Bridges strapped on a guitar during the show) to the fast-moving, sax-driven punch of “Let You Down” (a non-album standout) to the gospel-tinged shimmer of “Shine” (which feels kin to fellow Texan Gary Clark Jr.’s new tune “Church”).
Through it all, Bridges was like the calm breeze in the center of an ever-shifting warm front. Dressed immaculately in a blue suit jacket, gold pants and a red-and-gold tie, the 26-year-old Fort Worthian swayed and swung with his own peculiar grace, compelling many in the audience to move along with him.
Driving the train was a six-piece band that changed gears effortlessly throughout the night. Out front with Bridges, backup singer Brittni Jessie and saxophonist Jeff Dazey acted as his foils, with Jessie providing empathetic vocal support and Dazey frequently setting the tone via solos that alternately smoldered and sparked.
Behind them, bassist/organist Andrew Skates, drummer Josh Block and rhythm guitarist/bassist Austin Jenkins poured a solid foundation, affording lead guitarist Kenny Wayne Hollingsworth some room for stinging but unshowy slide riffs. It was the second ACL taping in a little more than a year for Jenkins and Block, who did the show with White Denim last summer before their integral involvement with Bridges redirected their lives.
In stark contrast to that White Denim set, which included jams that extended for more than 10 minutes, Bridges kept things tightly focused and moving at a rapid clip. They got through 16 songs in 63 minutes, less than four minutes a song even accounting for between-song banter (of which there was little). But he made good on his goal to send folks home happy, dancing down front with audience members on the floor as the band pushed the encore-closing “Mississippi Kisses” into overdrive.
Brown Skin Girl
Let You Down
In My Arms
Out of Line
Twistin’ & Groovin’