Leon Bridges exceeds expectations at Chastain

Photo courtesy of Columbia Records

On Tuesday Aug. 28 a few thousand Atlantans descended on Chastain Park for a large picnic.

At least that is what the Chastain Park Amphitheatre felt like for the hour and a half between when concert goers first began to arrive around 7:45 p.m. and when Leon Bridges first took the stage at 9:15 p.m.

Refreshingly, attendees are allowed to bring coolers full of as much food, water and other beverages as they want to most shows at the venue, making for a unique concert environment.

This irregularity was not lost on Bridges’ opening act, the Jamaican-American Jazz fusion performer Micah Davis. 

Davis, who employs the stage name Masego, found the candles which many concert goers brought for their picnics particularly amusing, making several jokes about the unique feature of the venue and even incorporating lines about candles into many of his songs. He also remarked several times that he felt as though he was at a family reunion rather than a concert.

As for his music, Masego is the perfect opening act to pair with Leon Bridges. Much like Bridges, it is difficult to pin the man to a single genre. He straddles the lines between jazz, R&B and soul, and he refers to his sound as “TrapHouse Jazz.” His music is unique and entertaining, and he never takes himself too seriously, with many of his songs incorporating humor and a heavy dose of irony. 

Masego did an admirable job of elevating the atmosphere of the amphitheatre from that of a quiet Tuesday evening picnic to that of a bona fide concert, preparing the attendees for the main performance to come. 

As good as Masego’s opening performance was, by 9:00 p.m. attendees were itching for Leon Bridges, and the opener dutifully relinquished the stage.

Bridges stormed onto the stage with a series of songs from his most recent album “Good Thing,” including quality performances of “Bad Bad News” and “Forgive You.” While these songs were musically excellent, the crowd was clearly less familiar with the newer album and with the exception of a few of the most popular songs from the album (which Bridges reserved for later in the setlist), the newer music drew less of a reaction from the attendees. 

The energy in the amphitheatre intensified greatly at the third or fourth song when Bridges performed an intense, guitar driven version of “Better Man,” an early 1960s R&B style track from his first album, “Coming Home.” The prominent electric guitar in the concert version of the song, which is normally a brass-driven track, gave the performance a much rawer feeling than the intense but polished studio version. 

The audience clearly responded well to hearing familiar tracks, and a much greater share of attendees rose from their picnics to dance and swing to the music.

Bridges kept things going with another hit from his first album, this time the titular “Coming Home.” Bridges’ performance of the song was broadly similar to the studio version, but his dancing and impressive stage presence made the track a crowd favorite.

The energy in the amphitheatre undulated continuously throughout the night, with Bridges alternating between fast and slow songs to keep the audience engaged without exhausting it. Of note were his performances of “Lisa Sawyer” and “Brown Skin Girl” in close succession.

The former, a slow and sincere soul ballad relating the life of Bridges’ beloved mother, lulled the crowd into a swaying trance, while the latter, a fun and upbeat R&B track, had it back swinging and dancing in an instant.

Bridges also experimented with a bit of new material, performing a promising new song which fell between the traditional sound of his first album and the modern R&B style of his second. 

Towards the end of the show, Bridges concentrated on some of his most popular material. By far the biggest crowd pleaser from “Good Thing” was “Beyond,” a slow but intense R&B love song which was among the last tracks Bridges played prior to the encore. 

The song is about the nervous excitement which comes at the beginning of a new relationship, and while it is not musically very energetic, the sincerity of Bridges’ performance of it and his smooth movements on the stage meant that it was invigorating for
the audience. 

When Bridges and his band finished the final track of the main set and left the stage, the audience naturally howled for more, initiating the strange traditional dance that is the encore, and drawing Bridges back out for a couple more. 

The first song of the encore came as a surprise to no one. Bridges had not yet played the biggest hit of his young career, so he came back carrying an acoustic guitar accompanied only by his female backup singer (rather than his full band) to perform the “Coming Home” hit “River.”

The song, a slow but building epic which covers as wide a range of emotions as it does pitches, was an instant hit for the audience. The majority of the crowd stood and swayed to Bridges’ deep howls and his backup singer’s melodic chanting, while many brought out their cell phones to salute the performance with light. 

“River” was intense and overwhelmingly beautiful and was easily the highlight of the show. Still, it would have felt wrong to end the concert there. 

The slow-burning intensity of “River” left the energy in the amphitheatre ready to ignite, and Bridges gave it the crescendo it deserved, bringing out the rest of his backing band to conclude the show with the explosion of energy that is “Mississippi Kisses.” 

The track brought the members of the audience that still remained sitting to their feet, making the whole amphitheatre shake and swing like an overfull jazz club. Bridges’ nearly ten minute performance of “Mississippi Kisses” brought an energy matched by few other entertainers in the modern music scene and gave the show the ending it deserved. 

Bridge’s performance was excellent in practically every regard, from his stage presence to the energy of his music to the structure of the setlist. The only weakness with the concert was its slow start, with the audience not really getting into the music until about a third of the way through, although that may have had less to do with the performance than with the fact that the attendees were still finishing their dinner. 

On Tuesday night, Bridges proved that he is one of the best performers playing today, and the next time a tour brings him through Atlanta, his show will definitely be worth checking out.