Photo: Bryan Brown
Leon Bridges operates on two speeds. He’s sometimes slow and sultry, a balladeer grounded in love songs directed at no one in particular but felt by all. He’s at other times faster and funkier, once admonishing his bass player to play a bass line so funky the crowd could smell it. He obliged, and Bridges got back to dancing, something he did frequently on Wednesday night (May 1).
Next at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion
What: The Killers
When: 8 p.m. May 6
Where: Arkansas Music Pavilion, Rogers
Cost: Starting at $35 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or visit arkansasmusicpavilion.com for information.
A crowd of several thousand gathered for his show at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers on a night where storms threatened the proceedings but never materialized. The start times of both Bridges and openers Medicine Man Revival were pushed ahead by 30 minutes.
Bridges is trying to cross a bridge into new territory, something evident during the majority of his 19-song, 90-minute performance. He’s moving beyond the simpler throwback soul of his 2015 debut album “Coming Home” and into the ambitious, more pop-oriented material of “Good Thing,” which he released last year. He’s also transitioning between types of venues. Many dates on the “Good Thing” tour that brought him to Northwest Arkansas have found him performing in mid-sized indoor spaces, like the Brady Theater in Tulsa, where he performed Tuesday night. Other dates have seen Bridges and his band on outdoor festival stages or larger-scale outdoor amphitheaters like the AMP. His show is probably too good for a small theater. But it felt like it lacks a bit of firepower in a wide-open space. While sleek and immaculately styled, it was pretty bare onstage.
Bridges and his band either lacked the musical muscle to overcome the crowd around me or perhaps the crowd lacked the attention span to recognize a good thing when they saw one. A quartet of women around me drunkenly screamed “We love you Leon!” over and over again at each song break. But they didn’t know any words to any of his songs, which meant they were there for sightseeing and not musical enjoyment. It was that kind of night for much of the evening, and it resulted in a show that never reached a boiling point with the four-minute exceptions provided by his biggest hits, “Coming Home,” “Beyond” and “River,” the last of which closed the evening.
Photo: Bryan Brown
Concerts are places where the unexpected can happen, and those moments of spontaneity and surprise are why people attend shows instead of just listening to an album. But shows are constructed the same basic way in the idea of maximizing everyone’s enjoyment. A segment of slow songs is usually followed by more boisterous ones, and Bridges and company did that well considering they work in both of those dichotomous spaces. There’s also often a set break moment where the band members reposition themselves for a different arrangement, like a band member suddenly appearing from a trap door, or riding a moving platform, or appearing on a secondary stage in the center of the audience or perhaps a guest appearance by the opening act. Bridges’ attempt at this time-tested tactic involved he and his band members forming a line at the front of the stage and turning the focus to the upright bass guitar, which led the charge. But this wasn’t enough to shake the crowd out of its low-level noise making, and a slower song was suppressed again. Perhaps the one surprise Bridges didn’t try was a new take on an instantly recognizable cover song, and that might have been welcome here. He stretched his own catalog to its brink, considering his set was 19 songs long and his two full-length albums have contained a total of 20 songs. It means we got the best of Bridges’ work but also some of the deeper cuts. That might give some explanation for the restlessness of the crowd, but not enough to excuse it away.
The crowd wasn’t particularly kind to the opening act, either. Medicine Man Revival calls themselves “future soul” music but it sounded a lot like southern rock to me. Southern rock if fronted by someone like Michael Franti, but southern rock nonetheless. Some blame can be given to the early start time, and many were still finding their seats when the music started (I got there late myself, and missed the first bit of the opener’s set).
The AMP seems to work best when it’s packed to the brim with people who can match the energy of a big-name act. Wednesday, on a quainter occasion, the moods didn’t match. I’d hope that we as a Northwest Arkansas audience can operate on two levels, too, but last night didn’t leave me convinced.