Leon Bridges has come very far, very fast. He was working as a dishwasher just two years ago before being signed to Columbia Records and releasing his debut album Coming Home last summer. He’s already graduated from clubs to larger venues, with his show Monday night at NYC’s Beacon Theatre being the first of two sold-out dates.
Few contemporary performers channel the past as expertly as this 26-year-old singer, who seems both surprised and unruffled by his rapid ascendency.
“I ain’t nothing but a kid from Fort Worth, Texas,” he said at one point. “At the Beacon,” he continued, shaking his head in wonder.
His songs, derived from late ’50s, early ’60s era soul and R&B, wouldn’t sound out of place on a vintage Sam Cooke record (his supple tenor voice helps, too). The arrangements — as played by his six-piece band including a sole female back-up singer — are minimalist but grooving, with a prominently featured saxophone adding sultriness. He even looks the part, nattily dressed in a sharply tailored suit, buttoned-up shirt and tie; his finger-snapping dance moves are sinuous without being strenuous enough to cause a sweat.
But for all the imitative elements, he still comes across like an original. During his 90-minute set he played every song from the album as well as a handful of others included on the deluxe edition. The audience, who stayed on their feet once he coaxed them up early on, was familiar enough with the recording to finish one number for him after he beckoned them halfway through.
He slyly emphasized his lover man credentials; after all, this is a man who promises to “swim the Mississippi River” to win back his girlfriend in the song “Better Man.”
“Want to know what I’m always dreaming of? Brown-skinned girls,” he said by way of introducing “Brown Skin Girl.”
Later in the show, he announced, “We’re going to take you to church on this one” before performing the Gospel-tinged “Shine.” “When I sang it for my mother, she said, ‘Boy, you sound like an old man,'” he added.
Bridges’ tour continues through the spring, summer and fall, playing U.S. and international dates, culminating on Oct. 2 in Richmond, Virginia.