Leon Bridges

The Drake Hotel, Toronto ON, May 1

Leon BridgesThe Drake Hotel, Toronto ON, May 1
Photo: Devon Little
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New-old soul sensation Leon Bridges doesn't look completely comfortable onstage, but man, can he sing. Give him time.
 
With Internet buzz surrounding him, the novelty of his '60s look and his breakout showing at SXSW, we eagerly anticipate debut album, Coming Home, set to drop in June. And Bridges didn't really have a lot to prove on this night; the singer-songwriter-guitarist is for real, and his southern soul meets gospel vibe warmed the intimate confines of the venue.
 
On his Instagram page, the tag reads: "Singer/Songwriter in Fort Worth Texas blending southern soul and gospel. Humility and serving others is the way of life." Indeed, the connections between gospel and soul music have been well documented and executed; the 25-year old Bridges dares to take things back to the seminal '60s, right down to the plaid jackets and high-waisted trousers from the era.
 
Backed by an unapologetically earthy six-piece backing band, the entire scene looks like they stepped straight out of a Technicolor period piece.  Yet, there's a resonant honesty that complements the musicality, as seen by titles like "Lisa Sawyer," "Flower" and "Brown Skin Girl."
 
Bridges harnesses a nervous energy: the rote two-step choreography and furtive glances to his guitar players to determine the next song come off as someone who is still learning his way on the touring stage. But Bridges' booming timbre, smouldering charisma and peaceful rhythm and blues wins out, so the crowd ignored the perfunctory stage banter ("This song is about / And this song is about") and nodded and cheered in collective agreement when he admitted as much: "I don't have any fancy things to say to you."
 
Fancy things to sing? That's another matter. The entire buzz about "star in the making" and "he's got next" ring true when you see Bridges live. The setlist was all about numbers from the upcoming project: the upbeat "Smooth Sailin'" felt like it should be the next single, while tracks like "Shine" and the known quantity that is "Coming Home" were true crowd pleasers. As his musicians headed to the back, Bridges strapped on his acoustic guitar for "River," a buoyant ballad that perhaps best epitomizes who he is as an artist: at the crucial juncture where soul and gospel intersected decades before. His set was a journey through time, and was a satisfying one, at that.
 
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