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By: Chris Dunbar
Photography by Jerry Friend
Opener Lianne La Havas was performing as I took my seat at the Durham Performing Arts Center Sunday night, and after enjoying her last six songs, I could not help but wish I had a “reset button” to go back and witness those first 15 minutes I had missed. Pushing against my remorse, I decided instead to focus on the present . . . and what a present it was.
Hearing a talented musician for the first time is something that stays with a person forever. La Havas has nimble fingers made for her fretboard and a booming voice for her message. Sunday night that message was about her Greek and Jamaican heritage (Green & Gold); that message was about anything being possible with love (Unstoppable); and that message was about loneliness and missing someone (Tokyo). While that covers a glimpse of her lyrical content, her instrumentation — backed by her extraordinary band — shifted from bouncy and airy jazz to dark and grimy soul.
As a performer, Lianne was warm, personable, and humble. She repeatedly took time out to reflect on the joy of performing and engaged in mutual admiration exchanges with the Durham, NC, audience. At one point the band exited the stage, and in a moment of vulnerability, La Havas made the admission that she was nervous about the next song. But standing with her guitar in hand she then belted out a stark, powerful version of Bacharach/Warwick’s “Say a Little Prayer for You.” Comparisons could be made to other artists, but that would only paint part of the picture. As she brought her set to a close and admitted that she was about to perform her last song of the night, that news was met by an audible groan from the crowd. It was an indication that this point in her career, as an opening performer, is a stage that she will be transitioning out of very soon.
After a brief intermission, it was time for Leon Bridges to take the stage. However, he did not just take the stage, he danced on to it, and that would be his mode of transportation for the remainder of the night. His dance moves were part James Brown, part Michael Jackson, and all energetic. And there were plenty of reasons for him to dance. Bridges and his band hit first with “Smooth Sailin,’” a song with a fast swaying groove that makes it impossible to stand still. As the band rolled through “Better Man,” “Twistin’ & Groovin,’” and “Outta Line,” there was blues, swing, and soul all pushed forward by Bridges’s showmanship and his desire to sweep the entire surface of the stage with the soles of his shoes.
Leon Bridges has made his career by surrounding his sound in the soul of an era from decades past. Elements of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Frankie Lymon were all present during Leon’s set Sunday night. His energy and ability to get the people on their feet was amazing to witness, but Leon’s deep, rich voice seemed to shine brighter on his slower ballads like “Pull Away” and “Shine.” His one departure came in the form of his encore, an insanely great version of Ginuine’s “My Pony.” Transitioning from the R&B/soul of the 50s and 60s into the R&B/soul of the 90s seemed effortless for Leon and his deeply talented band.
Sunday, September 11th marked the 15th anniversary of the tragedies that occurred in New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania. It was, and will always be, an annual day of remembrance, reflection, and service. The push shortly after that horrible day was to get back to “normal” and celebrate life in as many varied ways as we could. That would be the best way to combat any attempt to spread fear and hate. What better way to do that than to celebrate fearless performances from two young, talented artists; both of whom were not yet teenagers when the towers came down. Lianne La Havas and Leon Bridges exposed their souls to Durham on Sunday night; they took us to church, provided their own version of service, and in Bridges’s case, danced with reckless abandon. It was an event that won’t soon be forgotten.
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