Photo by MATT SHAVER
Leon Bridges was a beam of pure and joyful iridescence after a week of hopeless darkness. Stepping out in a Canadian tuxedo and a crisp white chest-hair-exposing button-down, Bridges gripped a sparkling mic stand with both hands as he crooned the first words of “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” from his 2018 record Good Thing.
Doused in deep magenta light, Bridges danced around the stage, moonwalking from one end to the other, periodically reaching out to the crowd to move along with him. Surrounding him on risers were his six bandmates, which included players on the bongos, sax, guitars, and standup bass, as well as a couple of softly sweet backup vocalists. The crowd’s energy exploded as Bridges progressed with big hits “Better Man,” “Coming Home,” and a swooning rendition of the romantically whimsical “Beyond,” that left me wondering how the rest of the night could possibly top such a moment.
But Bridges zeroed in on raw emotion in the middle of his set, in the swaying falsetto of “Shy” or the song he wrote about his mother, “Lisa Sawyer,” which he sang in front a rotating graphic of orange lilies so vivid I could nearly smell them. He used these longer, slower songs to let the instruments around him speak their own words, at times telling the room that his lead guitarist had some words he’d like to share before letting him shred into a blues-drenched guitar solo evocative of past masters like B.B. King.
The highlight of this smoother turn was undoubtedly “Mrs.” – one of Bridges’ most sensual new songs that sent every couple melting into honeymoon-like passion as he sang the lulling lines, “Sometimes I wonder what we’re holdin’ on for / Then you climb on top of me and I remember.” He let the band elongate the song with meandering solos as he commanded the stage in a performance of slow and soulful isolation dance moves. And when he paused to look out and say, “Sometimes you just gotta find that one girl in the crowd and sing to her,” every woman in the room nearly fainted.
Winding back up, Bridges lifted the pace with the yet-unreleased rolling blues-country tune, “Hold On,” which he’s played at shows since the supporting tour for his 2015 debut Coming Home. As his moves onstage got jumpier, the band cruised into the opening drive of “Smooth Sailin’” in front of a golden hexagonal backdrop as honeyed as Bridges’ voice.
When the lights went black, the venue immediately thundered with frenzied demands for more, as we all eyed the stagehands with the stomach-dropping fear that Bridges might leave without playing “River.” But he soon re-emerged with a pearl-accented teal guitar in hand, accompanied by only his one female backup singer. Finally, the long-awaited salvation of the cleansing spirituality that pours over from this song!
But no, he stopped a few strums in under the bright spotlight, with the room hanging on his every breath as he told us this darkness wouldn’t do, “I want to see your faces.” So the 1,300 fans in the sold-out Fillmore last night shone their phone flashlights in a blue glow, as an older woman next to me let out a shrill, “Thank you, Leon! Thank you for this song!” that brought a warm and toothy smile to Bridges’ face as he started up again.
He brought the band back out for a final song in “Mississippi Kisses,” with a rhythmic bassline that drips with a Southern charm as sweet as molasses. When the end approached, the drums quickened and Bridges performed one final dance sequence before exiting, leaving the band to finish the final few measures in his absence. Even without their leader, the band played those last Twist-inducing rhythms with an almost unearthly and everlasting magic that made me know I would be craving this level of radiant catharsis for weeks to follow. — SOPHIE BURKHOLDER