Hordern Pavilion, January 17
(A version of this review originally appeared at smh.com.au )
It became obvious within the first half hour that the oddest thing about Leon Bridges is not that on his first album a twentysomething former dishwasher from Texas connected with, and then connected us to, a style of soul which was almost pure 1960 and the flourishing of Sam Cooke.
Nor is it the fact that on his second album he effectively skipped two decades and recreated the smooth groove sound of 1980 and the adult flourishing of Michael Jackson. All while still building on his mixed audience of fellow twentysomethings and their parents.
The real oddity may be in us thinking this fluidity and flexibility could be matched by depth and performance as quickly. Because on his fourth Australian trip, playing his biggest rooms so far, Leon Bridges is not there yet. There’s an absence at the core and weakness on top.
While power is hardly the raison d’etre of either end of the Bridges fare, the problem was not volume – which does matter in a shed this size and this lifeless – but that the sound had no body to it. It was all surface and sparkle in guitars and drums, but the bass was underpowered, the keyboards limp, and the backing vocals often insubstantial.
The result was a hollowness that sucked in both light and energy, making it feel like a cabaret coming at you from a screen rather than a live stage – one incidentally where somebody thought it a good idea to put a not particularly inventive or exciting bass solo at the beginning of a song - and placed even more demands on Bridges to be the show.
And he tried. You would not fault him for style: graceful and lithe, he moved like the dancer he was before discovering his voice. Nor would you question his effort: he worked the stage left, right and centre; he urged audience participation; he encouraged us to “make some noise if you’re feeling sexy tonight”.
Tellingly though, that exhortation, during Shy – a song about and for seduction, to and by an innocent - emphasised how little sexiness there was in both song and presentation on stage. How little sense there was that the rather generic lyrics came from his heart or gut, or lower.
It reinforced the feeling suggested in the opening Jackson-meets-Jareau double of If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be) and the best song from the second album, Bad Bad News, that Bridges hasn’t established roots of his own but is still working from someone else’s.