The most striking thing about Fort Worth soul artist Leon Bridges’ 4 pm set at ACL Fest was the remarkable strides he has made as a performer since his Austin debut at a pair of sold out C-Boy’s shows early this year. At that point his band had only played a few shows together and he was just a few months removed from a dishwashing career. He skyrocketed in the spring, stormed South by Southwest and went on to tour extensively all summer long. Back then he was a quiet performer with a golden voice and a sincerity that made his simple retro soul songs resound with warmth.
The young man who hit the stage at ACL Fest had the charisma and polish of a seasoned professional. He’s looser, more relaxed and his band is much tighter. He easily commanded a crowd of thousands while maintaining the genuine heart and soul that made him so appealing in the first place.
The other notable thing about Bridges is the way he keeps his Christian devotion at the forefront of his music even as he’ s become a hipster icon. He kicked off his set with “Flowers” a song about “the good news,” calling his listeners to salvation. Bridges dipped and swayed easily while his band played a buoyant gospel groove and the ACL masses danced along.
From there he moved through a set that seamlessly blended danceable retro grooves like “Smooth Sailin'” and quieter numbers. He introduced “Lisa Sawyer” a family story that unwinds with simple grace by asking the crowd “how many people out there love their mamas?” They answered with wild cheers.
The faster numbers with early rock grooves punctuated by horn blasts and shuffling drums drew the biggest crowd response, but folks also swayed along to soulful love songs like “In My Arms.”
He closed his set the same way he brought it in, singing praise to the Lord with the quiet benediction “River.” His dropped the big guns, the horns and flash. His band left the stage, and he performed his most poignant number alone with an acoustic guitar and backup singer Brittni Jessie. Predictably, some of the crowd peeled away off to stake out spots for the next set, but those who remained were deeply moved.
“Man, it’s good to be back in Texas,” Bridges said midway through his set. It was very good to have him back.