The sold-out crowd at Tipitina's was pulled into a time machine. Leon Bridges stunned critics and listeners with a major label debut album, Coming Home, when it was released this summer, charming audiences with his impeccable ability to transport them to an imagined time and place, one that existed well before he or his bandmates were born.
Bridges is a singer-songwriter who has studied, and emulates, pre-soul black music of the late-'50s and '60s, and his tender, near-breaking voice and wardrobe frequently draws comparisons to Sam Cooke. Bridges has mastered an aesthetic - he didn't break a sweat and he never removed or adjusted a perfectly tailored, vintage cream-and-plaid suit, crisp white shirt and tie while performing - and, at 26, he has penned classic-sounding earworm pop songs about heartbreak and young love, backed by a warm rhythm section, bright horns and gospel-influenced harmonies.
But Bridges has not written "A Change is Gonna Come" - his music is largely apolitical and his vision of "soul" music looks to a time before a radical transformation in black popular music. Removed from that context, Bridges resurrects a sound and style, and does it well, for an audience that craves what's missing from pop music. On his debut album, it's unclear whether he's merely romanticizing an era, though his lyrics don't elevate the retro-soul feel of the music to contemporary social or political relevance. He's a cover artist covering himself in another time.
[jump] But that's an uneven assessment, that a black artist's work must "mean something" in a way, say, white artists like Luke Winslow King or The Deslondes - which perform almost exclusively music inspired by pre-war blues and Louisiana Hayride country music to critical acclaim - don't. Those post-modern anachronisms work if the artist elevates the music beyond the limitations of its genre. As a soul artist, however, can Bridges divorce himself from the genre's history?
It's a question that came up at NPR, where Eric Ducker and Emily Lordi, who writes about black music and is working on a book about the history of "soul," asked, "Do we need new old soul music?" Neo-soul builds on the conventions of its predecessors to resonate with right now - D'Angelo's recent Black Messiah, for example, or even Sharon Jones' decidedly "retro" music, build on the artists' unique experiences or world views to bring the music into the now. Retro soul recreates the yesterday. Lordi says of Bridges:
"I wonder what it means when his vision of soul kind of turns the clock back on soul's more radically political moment. ... If you're interested in soul, that has historically meant some kind of racial struggle - a social struggle, consciousness-raising, a desire to say it loud, "I'm black and I'm proud." To rally young black people who are young, gifted and black. It's not that everybody has to be radical. It just makes me wonder, "What does soul mean without it?"
At his show on Oct. 12, Bridges was a burgeoning showman, not quite emboldened by his own stage presence to burst into flames onstage but showing a quiet confidence that teases a flash of dynamite. He's a much cooler, sensitive writer and performer than an Otis Redding (another frequent comparison) - his soft-edged voice and lanky-framed, finger-snapping dance moves are more in tune with David Ruffin. He can swing his voice from high and light to a smooth, soft-edged croon. But he often struggled to compete with the band's infrequent bursts of volume, while the band - a tight sextet with sharp, locked-in grooves - remained stone-faced and a bit bored-looking throughout.
Bridges - who grew up in Texas - also performed several of his songs about New Orleans, from his mother's birthplace on Louisa Street ("Lisa Sawyer," about his mother, who was in the audience) to a "sweet little girl from the 9th Ward" on the lively "Twistin' and Groovin'." It added to a hometown feel, more laid-back than raucous - the show was the first on a U.S. tour, a two-month-long endeavor that continues to Australia and returns to the U.S. for the first several months of 2016. Bridges played a packed house at Tipitina's, and his shows for the next year will likely be similarly sold out and sardined.
And somewhere along the line he'll have another album underway. His songs ooze tenderness - singing directly to his lovers, asking to be a "Better Man" (to start, he'd "swim the Mississippi River"), pleading forgiveness for his vaguely sinful indiscretions, or pouring his heart out in exchange for a knife in his back. They're the kinds of golden-voiced love songs and breakup songs from the blueprints of R&B. Lurking just underneath there's an immense power waiting to be unleashed.