Thoughts On Leon Bridges’ Late-Night Talk Show Debut.

No need to harp on the sheer talent or rapid ascent of one Leon Bridges.

We’ve done all that already, and we knew heading into last night’s opening-week episode of The Late Late Show With James Corden that the throwback Fort Worth soulman was going to be the musical guest, following appearances from Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart.

Not bad for a kid that, within the past year, was still washing dishes in the Fort Worth restaurant business. (How’s that for an origin story, by the way?)

Our thoughts on the performance:
• What you didn’t see in the (since-deleted) clip were any moments from earlier in the show — at the start of which, Leon was shown in his green room and given a little on-air time to say how excited he was to be there. He looked sharp and came off as polite, as is his M.O. And, gotta say, host James Corden too seemed genuinely excited to have him, even if that kind of hype-up is Corden’s exact job description.
• Leon may have been the formal musical guest, but Will Ferrell was given the chance to steal the show in this regard when he was asked to sing the original Star Trek theme. (Bridges is the clear vocal champ between the two, for whatever that’s worth.)
• One obvious takeaway here is that someone — Leon? the label? Austin Jenkins of White Denim, who played in Leon’s backing band here and appears to serve as the band leader? — made the decision that Leon wouldn’t be the rocking the short-strapped guitar he so often carries on stage during this performance. That’s fine; the move allowed Leon to simply focus on the vocals and to be more expressive with his arms and minimal dance moves. On the other hand: The move did seem to take some shine off of Bridges and onto his unnamed backing band.
• So who was that backing band? Can’t name everyone, sorry, but among the players were White Denim’s Jenkins and Josh Block, Quaker City Night Hawks’ Andrew Skates, The Orbans’ Kenny Wayne and backing singer Brittni Jessie. I’m not sure about the other backup singer — or for that matter, the saxophonist, who wasn’t Fort Worth mainstay and previous Bridges backer Jeff Dazey, which is too bad because that dude can play. (Update: I’m told the sax player here was Ian Young, who you know from M83’s “Midnight City,” which is just all kinds of crazy. Also, the other backing vocalist was Fort Worth’s Ele Chupik.)
• The direction of this performance kinda rubbed me the wrong way. From the weird aspect ratio to the shots that pulled from the ceiling and down onto the performers, it all felt weirdly forced and distracting. I know this is a new show with a new crew that’s still trying to get its footing while carving out its own niche, but, like, c’mon guys: Just show the band.
• I don’t know if it was jitters or what, but the pacing of this “Better Man” performance was quicker than the recorded take. Beyond that, it was largely a safe showing, I’d say. Granted, that’s what this music merits and, for what it was intended to be, it worked. Using baseball terms, I’d say Bridges only needed to get on base here, to not screw up. Maybe he stretched a base hit into a double by slipping under the tag here. I’m still debating that. But it was a productive at-bat, I think.
• Of course, just getting here is a home run for Bridges. And that’s to be applauded, with maybe one caveat. A quick story: I’m having drinks with an established local musician a few weeks back — a guy who’s toured the country with some big, big names — and, when another, greener musician stops by to say hello, our conversation shifts to Bridges. This isn’t at all a unique tale, by the way; you’d be hard-pressed to converse with any North Texas musician lately without Bridges’ name coming up. Anyway, both guys start gushing excitedly about all that’s happening for Bridges — namely because, they readily admit, it means a lot for them. I get that to an extent; Bridges’ out-from-nowhere tale is a beacon of hope for every stars-in-their-eyes musician out there. The fact that he’s from here only ups the ante for everyone else from here. Makes total sense. But these guys said something that gave me a little pause: They put forth the notion that Leon’s success could mean more locals “get signed” and blah, blah, blah — y’know, like the old days. “Leon could elevate all of us,” one of them says. The other nods in solemn agreement. It’s a nice thought — one that Bridges is unnecessarily perpetuating — but I worry that it’s an unfair one. It’s putting a lot of pressure on a kid with just a handful of recorded songs and performances to his name online. His debut for Columbia, Coming Home, isn’t coming out till the summer. A lot of artists would crumble under that kind of weight.
• Bridges isn’t most artists. Another story: This past Saturday night, I see Leon out in the wild, watching a jazz band in Deep Ellum, and I’m floored by this notion. Dude just “won” South by Southwest — literally, even, as the festival itself even gave him an award — and here he was just out and about, chilling? It’s his first night back home and he’s out on the town. Nuts. So I confront him, like, “Leon, are you crazy? Go to sleep.” He shrugs and falls back upon the pleasantries he’s so skilled at sharing. He tells me how eye-opening and wonderful his SXSW experience was, how surprised and pleased he was with his reception in Austin. “Everything’s been so crazy,” he says — not in a stressed-out way, not in a shocked way, but with a sort of restrained, bemused marvel. Maybe, I think for a moment, this kid was made for this. He’s easy to root for, that’s for sure.

Leon Bridges performs with Lord Huron at the South Side Ballroom on Saturday, May 10. More information here.

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