Upstaging His Headliners, Texas's Own Leon Bridges Proves a Retro-Soul Star

Lord Huron, Leon Bridges
House of Blues
M ay  9, 2015

When I walked into the House of Blues balcony on Saturday evening, I had no idea what I was going to experience. Maybe from the opening act, but certainly not the headliners.

Lord Huron, an interesting folk band from L.A., was making their third trek to Houston in support of this past April's Strange Tails album. They placed themselves next to one another, an intriguing light display behind them accenting a skull in red whenever they deemed necessary or illuminating their album title. It was creepy yet warm, and as their headlining set concluded an hour or so past 10:15, the House of Blues crowd roared in approval of all the strange they presented.

Lead guitarist and vocalist Ben Schneider motioned quickly that it was good to be back in Texas, the kind of cheap pop you’d deliver if you were a ‘60s band trying your damndest not to get kicked out of a bar. The group's ambling revelry of “Until The Night Turns,” “Dead Man’s Hand,” “The World Ender” and “Fool For Love” made some people sway up in the balcony and stomp and kick on the ground floor, but not much else. Folk music does trance-like things to people and unlike a rambling wreck, Lord Huron kept it as clean as their retro attire. Imagine hearing Kings of Leon before they truly went pop with Only By the Night,  toned down to a certain pitch – that’s Lord Huron in a nutshell. Their opener, however, deserves a spotlight all his own.

Leon Bridges is as close to retro-soul as we may get these days. With a set that mixed Archie Bell like doo-wop with country-boy gospel, he took House of Blues for a ride during his 40-minute opening set. The Fort Worth singer has a knack for simple clothes, bowling shoes, calm jackets and slacks. In short, he dresses with the demeanor of a '60s political candidate with plenty of personal flair. Saturday, he opted for a Smokey the Bear hat with chocolate suit.

"Where my brown-skin girls at," he joked with the fans before riffing into the obviously titled "Brown Skin Girl." His follow-up, "Flowers" ran with the kind of rockabilly that needed a church tambourine and his booming voice. He doesn't shift around the room in a sinewy flair like Little Richard but rather a confident two-step strut. Bridges' live show makes me think of my grandparents, swaying together in a tight embrace. It's Doo Wop, the sort of soul that was heavy on individual bass lines, background vocalists who mattered and love that teetered between begging and sincerity. The music they loved. The music I drift off to whenever everything else sounds too noisy or cluttered.

Even the setups for the big records such as "Coming Home" get subtle touches. "This little song is about faithfulness," Bridges announced, humble before leading what is arguably my favorite love song of the year. Then he solidified every small aside I've made about him thus far with an anecdote on how his own lineage helped his career. "My grandfather said he noticed my grandmother's long legs the first time they met," he announced onstage. "So I wrote a song about it."

He got bashful about mentioning his mom, the inspiration for "Lisa Sawyer" and shouted out the friends who remember him for dancing to MIMS' "This Is Why I'm Hot" in 2007, his senior year of high school. During the tail end of the set, he shooed his guitarists Joshua Block and Austin Jenkins off the stage for his own solo moment, the growing gospel ride of "River." It's a beautiful tune, a hear-and-see-the-Lord call where it's Bridges, his guitar and two vocalists, baptize themselves in the waters of life.

He's the oldest soul around — at all of 25 years old.

Personal Bias: Bridges > Huron. It’s not necessarily the worst bet I’ve ever made but it's one of the first times in quite some time I can say the opener outshone the headliner.

The Crowd: A mix of laid-back individuals ducking the rain and avoiding the massive boxing crowd. Oh, and with one dancing midget.

Overheard In the Crowd: “I give it about 20 minutes before I’ll think about leaving.”

Random Notebook Dump: Back in March, I caught Bridges during his SXSW debut and came away utterly impressed. He’s also the first act I can remember in forever that wasn’t a hip-hop or rock act that I’ve truly gotten invested in.

A Better Man
Brown Skin Girl
Pull Away
Smooth Sailing
Coming Home
In My Arms
Twisting & Grooving
Lisa Sawyer

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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell