Leon Bridges performs at Quai des Brumes. Photo by Susan Moss
Leon Bridges needs to come back to Montreal ASAP.
The 25-year-old Texan made his debut here on Saturday, within the cozy confines of Quai des Brumes. The show sold out in a flash after being announced, and while the cramped venue could barely contain the excited and well-dressed sold-out crowd, it was the perfect place to catch the retro rhythm and blues man in his element before he moves on to bigger rooms.
Bridges has yet to release a full-length album – that will be remedied on June 23 – but the four songs already available paint a clear picture. He’s a soul man from the South with an affinity for a classic 1950s and ’60s sound. His original countrified doo-wops and ballads could easily have come from the era in question, although mercifully the recordings don’t come with spackled on vinyl cracks and hisses. He’s a young man, so it’s inevitable that some modernity has crept into his songwriting, as studious as he may be.
Leon Bridges. Photo by Susan Moss
The show, on the other hand, confirmed that even behind the familiar veneer, he’s a legitimate performer and no mere carnival cruise cabaret act. Not that anyone at the show wasn’t expecting him to leap from his recordings and into our faces, but to witness Bridges and his six-piece backing band crammed onto the tiny Quai des Brumes stage was to see a young band hustling and thriving, which is a bit different from seeing a settled legacy act from the nosebleeds at Place des Arts. It was great to see Bridges react to every crowd reaction.
The band started the set by settling into a smooth groove before the backing vocalist introduced Bridges, who emerged from the back of the room and through the crowd and hopped on stage. They went right for the jugular by playing punchy single “Better Man,” a song that established the recurring themes and rhythms of the night. Bridges’ words are timeless: He’s a travelling man who speaks of the South (mostly New Orleans and Mississippi) and he’s longing for his baby.
The guitarist brought an old country flavour to the songs, which makes sense given their preferred decade, compared to today where R&B and country mingle less. They also had the look down, in terms of suits, coifs and hats. Where Bridges and band really sold this immaculate forgery was in their movements, especially the head nodding in unison and Bridges swaying and finger-snapping to the beat. The tiny stage required they be economical with their movements, but it also recalled pre-James Brown television performances, where an Ed Sullivan might have given the artist a list of do’s and don’ts in the green room prior.
“Coming Home” sounded exactly like the recorded version, while “River” was done as the encore with just Bridges at guitar and the backing singer. The other songs he played during the set, which one presumes will be on the album, felt a bit more up-tempo and swinging compared to what we’ve heard so far. He’s been compared to Sam Cooke, which is pretty far off since Bridges isn’t as commanding a singer. His voice, although sweet and melodious, is more complementary to the full musical package.
By the time his short set was over, the crowd was restless and asking for more. While he didn’t have more material, he went out onto St-Denis Street, where people took photos with him and commended him on his style.
He seemed to dig us too, based on his Twitter feed.
Also: on Friday, producers Samo Sound Boy and Murlo headlined an eclectic and uneven but thoroughly interesting line-up at Newspeak (formerly Cabaret Underworld) in front of far too few people.
The show was the London-based Murlo’s North American debut. His sped up soca and dancehall creations were all over the world map and unlike anything else out there. Anyone who courageously starts their set with a fairly lengthy Sean Paul remix deserves your attention for the full hour-long set.
L.A.’s Samo Sound Boy released one of the year’s finest albums last week with Begging Please. It has a winning, repeatable formula: Hooky vocal samples emerging from the sonic ether and gradual buildups that get under your skin as the elements multiply, and he stuck to it live. ■