Before we jump into breathless praise of the star turn Leon Bridges made on Saturday Night Live over the weekend, let's put something in perspective. The Fort Worth singer has already played some seriously big gigs this year, including ones on national TV shows like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Just a couple weeks ago, he joined Macklemore and Ryan Lewis during the American Music Awards. It doesn't get much bigger than that, unless you're talking about SNL.
Not only did Bridges play SNL, he played it on the night when Ryan Gosling, the Internet’s imaginary boyfriend, hosted the show. He played just two weeks — SNL took a Thanksgiving break — after Adele, the biggest pop star in the world. More than seven million viewers tuned in to the Adele episode, which means that seven million people saw promos for Bridges’ appearance.
And let's just say he didn't disappoint.
In the course of Bridges' rise to national and international notoriety over the past year, there have been some questions raised over his stage presence, including in this very publication. He's a young singer making the transition to ever-bigger stages, and it's safe to say he has adapted quickly. SNL showed us the best Leon Bridges we've seen yet.
The pressure could've been enough to overwhelm the 25-year-old, but he handled it with grace. From the moment Gosling enthusiastically announced him, Bridges looked like a bandleader. He looked more confident than ever as he launched into “Smooth Sailin’,” engaging the crowd and dancing throughout. Even if his moves veered into dorky territory occasionally, in less than three minutes, Bridges succesfully made the case that he has a place in the national pop scene.
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When Bridges returned for “River,” he dialed back the dance moves, picked up a guitar and delivered every bit of the emotion that makes the recorded version so affecting. Backed by four incredible voices, Bridges’ own gorgeous timbre soared. Any of that sheepishness he displayed in his days regularly playing Dallas and Fort Worth had been totally transformed into a quiet suaveness. The only time Bridges looked uncomfortable was during the studio audience's reaction to his performance once it had wrapped. He flashed an awkward smile as they whooped and hollered and clapped.
The SNL stage can be a difficult one to master. Even some of pop’s biggest stars — Lana Del Rey, Coldplay — have given terrible performances on it. A strong show was not assured, and Bridges' performance proved that the hype is justified. He lived up to the expectations that Adele and Gosling and the show itself set for him. SNL is an important test for up-and-coming musicians, and Bridges has probably just thrown off the curve for everyone else in his class.
So let the praise continue. Saturday night just gave us more reasons to brag about Bridges, to tell the world how the quiet kid who started out in tiny clubs in Fort Worth is now leading his own one-man ‘60s soul revival. Slowly but surely he's chipping away at doubts about his readiness for the pop superstardom that awaits him. We may be shameless fans, but at least we’re not wrong.