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Leon Bridges brings the songs, the soul and the style to 'Austin City Limits' taping

Leon Bridges may be a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and recording artist — but he also knows something about fashion.

Near the end of Tuesday’s “Austin City Limits” taping at ACL Live, the Fort Worth smooth-soul sensation was reminiscing about his first appearance on the program five years ago. He’d bought a snappy blue blazer for that occasion, pairing it with tan slacks and a red-and-gold tie for an ensemble that he apparently regretted, in retrospect. “I hope I did better this time,” he told the crowd with a smile.

Well, yeah. Decked out in an immaculate black-leather suit with pants that flared out bell-bottom-style at the ankles, Bridges exuded more sheer style than about 99 percent of the artists who’ve performed on the program across five decades.

Bridges may have captured the world’s attention with a butter-and-silk voice applied to heartfelt original songs, but his attention to sartorial eloquence is clearly part of the appeal. To wit: After playing to a packed house at Stubb’s on Sunday, Bridges flew to New York for the celebrity-packed Met Gala, which opened the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion" exhibit on Monday. And then flew right back here for Tuesday’s “Austin City Limits” taping.

It’s all an integral part of the artistic presentation and identity for Bridges, who released his third album in six years this summer. “Gold-Diggers Sound,” recorded at a hotel/bar-studio in Los Angeles of the same name, digs deeper into the R&B and soul territory he pushed toward with 2018’s “Good Thing” after his 2015 debut “Coming Home” began with a comparatively more folk-based aesthetic.

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He’d played all of “Coming Home” at his first “ACL” taping in 2016, so he understandably relegated material from that record to just the title track and his signature tune “River” at the end of an 80-minute set. This time, the focus clearly was the new album. Bridges played everything from “Gold-Diggers Sound,” backed by a splendid seven-piece crew of guitarists Brandon Thomas and Kenny Wayne Hollingsworth, bassist Josh Crumbly, drummer Brandon Combs, keyboardist/saxophonist Josh Johnson, and backing singers Brittni Jessie and Brandon Marcel.

Leon Bridges and band perform Tuesday during an "Austin City Limits" taping at ACL Live.

All of them followed Bridges’ lead in dressing sharply, especially Jessie, whose combination of crop-top, sparkling-silver pants and suave hat might have upstaged the frontman’s attire. She was a magnetic presence throughout, suggesting it might only be a matter of time before we see her own career take off.

Highlights from the new record included “Why Don’t You Touch Me,” a deeply affecting heartbreak ballad; the recent single “Motorbike,” propelled by highly danceable syncopated rhythms; and “Sweeter,” which he released a year ago in the wake of George Floyd’s death (“Why do I fear with skin dark as night/ Can't feel peace with those judging eyes”).

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Bridges also worked in six songs from “Good Thing.” The clear standout was “Beyond,” his highest-charting radio single to date and an instantly memorable pop tune that had much of the crowd singing along. Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t play that album’s opening track, “Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand,” which won a Grammy for traditional R&B performance.

The performance was streamed live on the program’s website. It’ll be edited to a half-hour for a Nov. 6 TV episode he’ll share with Houston’s Khruangbin, who taped the show on Monday night and teamed with Bridges on the 2020 EP “Texas Sun.”

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Leon Bridges "Austin City Limits" set list:

1. Shy

2. Steam

3. Why Don’t You Touch me

4. You Don’t Know

5. Born Again

6. Details

7. Motorbike

8. Magnolias

9. Blue Mesas

10. Lions

11. Beyond

12. Sweeter

13. Don’t Worry

14. Sho Nuff

15. Bad Bad News

16. Coming Home

17. River