Culture / Entertainment

Leon Bridges Powers Through Black Heritage Day Controversy With Bun B and a Cool Stage Stunt: Retro Soul Star Never Loses His Cool in Front of Smaller Crowd

BY // 03.03.18

Leon Bridges is many things. Velvet voiced. Loose limbed. Talented from tip to toe. But a RodeoHouston shoe-in? Not so much

The 28-year-old retro soul man took the massive new star stage at NRG Stadium Friday night as a controversial choice for Black Heritage Day. Many argued (mostly on social media) that Bridges largely appeals to white audiences, making him an imperfect fit for this night.

With the Houston Rodeo’s history of sold out, high-energy shows, you could say Bridges had big boots to fill amid all the noise. But something tells us he’d rather wear wingtips.

Friday’s performance would have been killer in an intimate setting, a dimly lit lounge with nothing but the singer’s voice shining out. Basically, the exact opposite of the 72,000-plus capacity stadium with fans in fringed boots, sporting Stetsons. It was a good show.

But it didn’t quite fit, didn’t quite click. Just over 51,000 rodeo fans turned out  — the lowest concert attendance since the Rodeo started Tuesday night.

Not all Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo performers needs to be country born and bred. Rock stars and pop stars are important parts of every Houston Rodeo. But the choice of Bridges raised eyebrows and had some fans asking, “Who is that, exactly?”

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Until Bridges got some serious street cred, courtesy of surprise guest, Houston hip hop legend Bun B. Fans got on their feet the moment Bun B got on stage. The duo performed a mature mashup, blending Bridges’ old school/I-was-born-in-the-wrong-era sound with UGK’s mid-nineties hit “One Day.”

In that song, toward the end of the set, everything went right. Then Bun B left as quickly as he came.

Bridges had opened up with “Smooth Sailin,” dancing at the mic in his shades and black and white polka dot Oxford shirt. His band was made up of snappy dressers, all clean lines in slim black pants or suits. Everyone on stage was passionate and in sync on the up-tempo tune. It was definitely smooth. But that doesn’t mean it was smooth sailin’.

The Fort Worth native has diehard fans of his bygone era blues, his stylistic nods to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. Brdiges’ breakout song “Coming Home” made Spotify’s Top 10 Most Viral Songs. His music is undeniably easy listening — mellow but playful, heavily influenced by 1950s and 1960s sounds. But that doesn’t mean it’ll make everyone’s playlists.

Bridges performed in Houston this time last year during a Super Bowl event, on a much smaller scale on an open-air stage.

Leon Bridges Puts the Music First

Throughout his Rodeo concert, Bridges was all about the music. You could tell he was feeling it as he sang every word, whether he was flitting through the fast-paced “Flowers” or easing through a soft melody like “Lisa Sawyer,” dedicated to his mother, who was in the audience.

Almost all of his songs were followed by cheers and whistles from the audience. They were appreciated but not as much as they could have been. Bridges makes the kind of music that you have to dance to in order to truly understand. At the Rodeo, Bridges’ talent was recognized and rewarded, but you got the sense that there was something missing.

There’s something yearning in Bridges’ music, something that works much better at a smaller scope. The giant Rodeo stage almost swallowed him whole.

You could even see the effect that pure proximity had on the experience. The closer you got to the dirt, the more you could see fans swaying to the beat or clapping their hands. Out on the dirt itself, 10 to 12 concert goers were even swing dancing to “A Better Man.” The farther up the stands, the more stoic the crowd got.

Bridges poured out his passion, even as people milled around in the aisles and halls during his songs. He even went out on a limb to give Houston a show — he was on the only performer so far to make use of the new stage’s elevation possibilities.

“Fun stage, right?” Bridges asked as he headed to one of the star’s tips. It rose into the sky so that Bridges hovered high on it in air, singing, one spotlight on him.

The mood at the end of the one-hour concert was light, easy. Bolstered by that Bun B cameo.

The night’s takeaway? Good singer, maybe the wrong venue.

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