Leon Bridges is the truth….Or so everyone has been saying since the first songs by the sweet-sounding soul singer made their way onto the internet late last year. He is pure, he is real, he is dripping with authenticity. He is not of the music industry; he happened upon it by accident. Judging by his songs and his fashion sense, it almost seems like he happened upon the year 2015 by accident as well. He dresses like a Fifties hipster and sings like Sam Cooke. In-the-know music fans began to stump for Bridges and his refreshing lack of bullshit, passing around the same two or three YouTube URLs — links to the scant songs that Columbia Records had released. The label knew that word of mouth was enough to start the buzz mill churning, and by South by Southwest in March, he was a bona fide phenomenon, taking home the conference’s Grulke Prize for Developing U.S. Act. Now that the press was invested and he had built a legitimate, if still curious, fan base, the next step was to release an actual album. That happened on June 23. The step after that was to tour in support of that album, and that began with a bang at the Bowery Ballroom later the same evening.
Bridges’s Bowery show indeed felt like a culmination of all the mounting hype of the past eight months. On Monday night, he was the musical guest on The Tonight Show. He had officially arrived, and to celebrate he would play his first big-ticket show in New York City. Just how big-ticket? Prior to the show, a nervous horde of fans who’d purchased counterfeit tickets stood on the curb of Delancey Street, gazing longingly at the line of people slowly disappearing into the venue. Those who’d been scammed through Craigslist were out of luck. Those who’d bought fake tickets through StubHub would be reimbursed, but this was no consolation for being deprived of a look at the mysterious soul singer their friends had been whispering/raving about for so long now. One girl, at least, was lucky enough to have a friend who’d bought tickets to Bridges’s show the next night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Most were not so lucky. Both shows have been sold out for weeks.
Bridges’s ascent has been a unique phenomenon. Because his origin story is so atypical, he carries a certain exoticism: Born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, he developed an interest in music while studying ballet (yes, ballet) at the unheralded Tarrant County College. When a man began bringing a keyboard to play in the halls of the school, Bridges took to joining him, despite his lack of a musical background. Over the next few years he honed his singing voice, devoured the music of the soul pioneers to whom he’d later be compared, and learned to play guitar. Then, suddenly, he was signed to Columbia Records — and now, less than a year later, here we are. It’s as simple as that. He’s as close to an overnight success story as ever you’ll find, appearing out of nowhere from Fort Worth, or the Fifties, whichever is most improbable.
His stage show last night satisfied everyone’s vision of this alternate reality from which he seems to have sprung forth. In front of a packed venue full of an inordinate number of beautiful women and guys in tasteful button-downs, he crooned and swayed and smiled in front of a draped, red-velvet backdrop. A halo of warm, antique-looking spotlights arched over his six-piece band, which included a saxophonist, a drummer in a cowboy hat, and a single, sultry female backup singer in a white dress. It was very much an Old Hollywood aesthetic, the type of vibe most upstart bars with carefully cultivated craft cocktail menus aspire to exude. It was a theatrical manifestation of Bridges’s much talked-about Fifties-specific fashion sense, and on Tuesday he wore a brown suit, a coffee-with-milk-colored shirt, and a brown skinny tie. The whole package brought to mind some sort of hybrid of Nick Waterhouse, the Los Angeles throwback r&b artist with whom Bridges has been known to associate, and that guy from the Temptations movie who was also in Cool Runnings.
But despite his bold sense of style, Bridges is shy, soft-spoken, and completely devoid of any pretension or ego. This humility is probably his most arresting quality, if that isn’t an oxymoron. To Bridges, touring and playing music is a novel concept, and in the end he’s just happy to be here, playing his music for people. At South by Southwest, he told me that touring “beats washing dishes,” and last night he echoed this sentiment, telling the crowd that being “out playing shows is better than sitting at home watching TV.” This isn’t to say Bridges lacks confidence. He certainly has plenty of it, but it’s still developing. He’s still getting used to being fawned over, to playing in front of strangers who love him, to being a star. During his performance at the Bowery Ballroom, it felt like we were witnessing a pivotal moment in this star’s rise. His appearance on The Tonight Show and the subsequent release of his album represented a lifting of the veil, and now here he was, a fully formed touring musician, with an album out and everything.
For the overwhelming majority of those in attendance, it was their first time seeing him perform, and, in a way, it was Bridges’s first time seeing such an audience, one that had been eagerly awaiting him, one that had already anointed him. He delivered everything we wanted, of course, because all we wanted was to see him and hear the songs we’d been swooning to for months. “We just got one goal tonight,” he said before playing his first song. “To make y’all happy.” For Leon Bridges, it will always be as simple as that.