Leon Bridges plays a steamy set at ACL Live (And Austin is here for it)

Back in the spring, tickets to Leon Bridges’ first night at ACL Live sold out the moment they dropped. Consequently, the club was packed, and excitement hung heavy in the air. When the house went dark sometime around 9:15 p.m., a hysterical scream went through the crowd.

Leon Bridges and special guest Masego perform at ACL-Live at The Moody Theater on September 1, 2018 in Austin, Texas. Scott Moore for the American-Statesman

Bridges set the tone for the show as he exploded onto a stage bathed in blue light, “Live from the funk/It’s hotter than Texas/Right from the jump,” he crooned, seducing the audience with “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)”.

Don’t be scared of me tonight I want to see you dance,” he coaxed the crowd. They happily obliged.

Bridges is dancing more these days too. With a seven-piece band at his back, the stage was set with a wide circle where Bridges could prowl, shimmy and slide around.   

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His new album “Good Thing” is a dramatic evolution from his 2015 debut, “Coming Home.” That golden voice has always been his super power, but on the new release he moves beyond sepia-toned songwriting with simple melodies carrying vivid imagery. He pushes into new territory, shaking off the Sam Cooke comparisons with clubbier soul jams and insistently steamy bedroom numbers.

Can I get sexy tonight, Austin?” he asked, to a resounding affirmative swoon. He played a sultry version of “Coming Home,” allowing the audience to quite capably handle a verse, before seguing into “Beyond,” the greatest wedding song of the year. 

If you’re with your forever raise your hand,” he said before starting the latter and thereby confirming the obvious: this was a stellar date night concert. Couples, in general, and, if we’re being honest, white couples, specifically made up a huge portion of the crowd. Much has been said about how Bridges’ crowds skew white. How he struggles to find a “Brown Skin Girl” in his crowds when he sings that song. The bottom line is Bridges creates sentimental baby-making music that resonates exceptionally well with white people (the white people who program adult contemporary radio stations, in particular).

Leon Bridges and special guest Masego perform at ACL-Live at The Moody Theater on September 1, 2018 in Austin, Texas. Scott Moore for the American-Statesman

But onstage, Bridges seems unburdened by any of these issues. He’s grown, both musically and a performer. The show had jazzy interludes with an extended stand up bass solo intro-ing the mournful lament “Georgia to Texas.” It also had ample dance breakdowns, like when he played the legitimate club banger “You Don’t Know.”

He took the set out with a ballistic version of his early track “Flowers.” Then, after a full five minutes of enthusiastic cheering, he returned for a sublime acoustic performance of “River” followed by a shack-shaking, rafter-rattling full band exit with “Mississippi Kisses.”

 “Your boy done graduated from C-Boys,” Bridges said under his breath, near the end of the set. He was referencing his first shows in Austin in 2015, when he packed the tiny South Austin club, right before his stratospheric rise. And he’s absolutely right. Back then, he was raw talent finding his voice. Now he’s a seasoned performer with an easy knack for working a crowd. 

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