At the very least, say this much about Leon Bridges: The man knows how to make an entrance.
Sunday night at Durham Performing Arts Center, Bridges’ highly expert six-piece backup band took their places and started in on the opening of “Smooth Sailin’,” a song from Bridges’ 2015 debut album “Coming Home.” After a perfectly timed interval of vamping and a few warm-up instrumental solos, Bridges himself shimmed on out into the spotlight – looking good enough to eat, in a chocolate-brown suit and bright yellow shirt and tie – and began to sing.
So yeah, if you were at DPAC on Sunday night, you know what it was like to see a soul revue-style show at Harlem’s Apollo Theater circa 1966.
A 27-year-old Fort Worth, Texas, native, Bridges is the latest next big thing among latter-day old-school soul revivalists, and he shows signs of sticking around after the buzz wears off. “Coming Home” debuted in Billboard’s top-10 last year; and onstage, Bridges has the look, the moves and the voice. Plus he knows how to work a room.
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“Does Durham, North Carolina, have The Juice?!” he hollered early on. The audience (largely white, with a surprising amount of young folks) spent most of the 90-minute set trying to prove that the Bull City is indeed juice-sufficient.
Bridges certainly didn’t make things easy on himself with the selection of opening act, Lianne La Havas, a super-charming and big-voiced young Englishwoman of Greek and Jamaican lineage. Her 45-minute set revealed La Havas as a performer with terrific pipes and charisma to burn, plus off-the-charts likability. Even her backup band was applauding after La Hava’s solo rendition of the Dionne Warwick chestnut “I Say a Little Prayer.”
Where La Havas mostly stood still at the microphone, Bridges stayed in kinetic motion for most of his set, stalking from side to side and covering enough ground to overload a Fitbit. But it wasn’t just aerobics, and he testified as well as sang.
“Can we take you to church on this next sing?,” he asked, introducing the churchy “Coming Home” number “Shine.” Other songs showed traces of roadhouse blues from Bridges’ native Texas, with all of the album’s songs in the set list – plus an ace cover of ’90s balladeer Ginuwine’s 1996 bump-and-grind classic “Pony.”
The lighting was such that the players onstage often looked monochromatic, mimicking the look of a black-and-white photo, which made for a vintage night from start to finish. And while it’s hard to tell where Bridges can take this, for right now he sounds just fine.