Leon Bridges – St James Theatre January 9, 2016


DSC_9510Here we go…the first concert review of 2016! Texas retro-soul man Leon Bridges made his NZ performing debut on this Saturday night at Auckland’s St James Theatre. The 26-year-old has gotten rave reviews for his album, Coming Home, but can he keep a live audience entertained?

The answer is “no” and then, “yes”.

Bridges and his six-piece band took the stage shortly before 9:30pm in front of a crowd that was already in high spirits, ready to have a good time.

Leon himself was looking quite elegant in his white tux, eliciting even more comparisons to the great Sam Cooke, even before he sang a note. The band consisted of long-time sax player Jeff Dazey, drummer Rico Allen, Andrew Skates on bass and organ, Austin Jenkins on guitar and bass, Kenny Wayne Hollingsworth was the lead guitarist and Brittni Jessie stood stage left adding her stunning backing vocals.

Bridges and company would eventually play each of the 10 tracks found on his debut album, beginning with the bouncy, upbeat Flowers. Unfortunately, Bridges vocals seemed to get lost in the room, trailing off into an echo, while Jessie’s BVs were too high in the mix. Eventually the mix problem was solved, although I still had to strain to make out Leon’s vocals throughout the night.

One instrument that came out loud and clear was Jeff Dazey’s saxophone. He added some excellent breaks to Flowers and Better Man, while guitarist Kenny Wayne showed off his Steve Cropper-like chops on the slow, Stax-influenced Shine.

These first three tunes were followed by Brown Skin Girl, a smooth soul ballad that seemed to lack any emotional pull.

In fact, that seemed to be the distinct problem with the first half of Bridges’ show…all the parts were in place, everyone was looking and sounding as they should, but there was little, if any real soul coming off the stage.

Fortunately things improved as the set continued. After eight songs played in quick succession…with the excellent band hardly given time to show off their stuff…Bridges offered up Smooth Sailin’, encouraging the crowd to get up and dance.

This is what they’d been waiting for, and the energy level quickly rose as the band dug into the dance tune, with Brittni adding some call and response vocals to Leon’s.

This was followed by Out Of Line, an as-yet unrecorded rocker that sounded like if came straight out of the 1950s, honking sax and all. It was brief, but got the job done.

By this time Bridges had performed 10 songs in 30 minutes.

A ballad, Lonely Road, was next. Another unrecorded song, Bridges actually squeezed some feeling out of this one, aided by Jessie’s close harmony.

From there it was all good…Twistin’ & Groovin’, a song about how Leon’s grandparents met, was exactly as advertised, with Kenny Wayne throwing in a fine slide guitar solo, while Lisa Sawyer featured Dazey’s finest sax solo of the night…slow and sexy.

The set finished with River, as most of the band departed leaving Skates on organ and Bridges to play guitar. It resulted in one of the most soulful moments of the evening, with Brittni, again, sweetening the pot with her vocal contribution.

With the show clocking in at well under an hour, there was obviously going to be an encore.

Kenny Wayne’s guitar led the charge with a clangy intro straight outta Sam The Sham’s Wooly Bully. The song was Pussyfootin’ and the band was swinging and Leon was groovin’.

The three-song encore continued with In My Arms, a ballad Bridges described as “a little love song of mine” and finally Mississippi Kisses, a dance workout that gave Austin Jenkins a chance to show off his skills on guitar.

So, after a slow start, Bridges…with helps from his excellent band…got things cooking after all. Despite his fine debut album, it’s clear that Leon Bridges is still finding his way as a performer. Fortunately he’s got a great band to help him get there. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s developed if he returns.

Marty Duda

Click on any image to view a photo gallery by Michael Flynn:

Leon Bridges set list:

  1. Flowers
  2. Shine
  3. Better Man
  4. Brown Skin Girl
  5. There She Goes
  6. Pull Away
  7. Let You Down
  8. So Long
  9. Smooth Sailin’
  10. Out Of Line
  11. Lonely Road
  12. Twistin’ & Groovin’
  13. Coming Home
  14. Lisa Sawyer
  15. River
  16. Pussyfootin’
  17. In My Arms
  18. Mississippi Kisses