By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Sep 04, 2021 at 4:01 AM Photography: Ty Helbach

What began as a rainy afternoon and evening on Friday warmed up nicely as crowds gathered for Leon Bridges' sold out show at the BMO Harris Pavilion.

The Summerfest show was a precursor to the (sold out) Gold-Diggers Sound Tour, which kicks off Sept. 5 in Nashville, Tennessee. It also marked his second performance at the BMO Harris Pavilion, where he performed as part of his “Good Thing” tour in September of 2018. 

And it was a night to remember, thanks to Bridges’ high energy showmanship and emotion-driven 90-minute set.

Coming Home

Despite opinions of early critics – who quickly pegged Bridges as “a retro soul star for the Snapchat era” – Bridges’ has continued to prove that his work is multi-dimensional. As evidenced from the retro soul sound which permeates his Grammy-nominated 2015 album “Coming Home” to the eclectic sound of “Good Thing” (2018), which conjures the 70s with elements of both funk and disco, Bridges’ music seems to keep one foot solidly in the past, while moving deliberately into the future.

His evolution becomes crystal clear when you listen through his July 2021 release Gold-Diggers Sound, a two-year project finished during the pandemic, on which Southern soul is woven seamlessly with synthetic textures, beats and layers of sound, along with plenty of slinky smooth R&B grooves.

On Friday night, Summerfest-goers got the full complement of that evolution in the form of a well-orchestrated show that offered the audience the best of all three albums with a set-list that ran the gamut from popular hits to songs reimagined for a live audience.

Leon BridgesX


I saw Bridges for the first time at his sold-out Riverside Theater show in March of 2016. At that point, he was still new on the scene and just a few weeks into a 22-show tour for his debut album “Coming Home.” Even then, his stunning vocals and innate showmanship easily overshadowed any foibles of a first-time tour and he carried a diverse crowd of new fans along on a hip-shaking, shoulder-swaying journey.

Five years later, Bridges has come into his own. His wardrobe – once comprised of snazzy suits and deco-patterned ties, along with a signature Stetson fedora – was stylish, yet far more casual. A black tee peeked out from a silver-buttoned satin shacket, while form fitting flared jeans flowed over the top of Western boots befitting of a Texas native. 

His demeanor oozed cool confidence as he goaded the audience, shouting “Summerfest, make some noise!” It was an invitation met with cheering, as he opened up the show with the single-worthy jam “Shy,” the moody, sexy “Steam” and a rocking version of “Bad Bad News” that pumped the air with palpable energy.

He thanked the crowd before breaking into his Platinum hit “Beyond,” a song that strikes gold with its combination of deep bass, jangly tambourine and jazzy synth, along with a chorus that’s so well-constructed it practically begs to be played on repeat.

Texas Sun

The night was also filled with unexpected twists. First, Bridges and his band shook things up with a Latin-inspired arrangement of “Brown Skin Girl” that made the beautiful tribute to black- and brown-skinned women into an up-tempo dance number. 

Then, later on in the set, Bridges asked the audience if they were ready for something funky. They responded with a roar. “We got something so funky they gonna smell it across the Summerfest grounds,” he teased as he and the band broke into the psychedelic disco groove that introduces the neo-soul tune “Lions.”

The art of Bridges’ performance was not only in the music, but also in the way it was delivered: emotional and energetic highs and lows weaving seamlessly from one song to another.


Bridges show-stopping voice rang true throughout. He crooned. He purred. He floated sensually through the pick-up lines inherent to “Details” and pulled out all the sexy baby-making vibes during the provocative love ballad “Motorbike.”

Meanwhile, his passionate performance of “Sweeter,”  a meditation on racism which he released following the murder of George Floyd, was just as moving live as it was when I listened to it at home in the days following the tragedy.

“Someone should hand you a felony/Because you stole from me my chance to be,” he sang. And as he did, you could feel the inherent melancholy that lies below the surface of Bridges’ smooth easy-to-listen to music.

The song is an all-too-keen reminder that in a  world that’s been divided by politics, torn apart by racism and isolated – both physically and mentally – by a pandemic, the ache for what’s been lost remains palpable. Bridges captures that with raw honesty. And yet, he delivers the news with a sense of hope, a sense that the world – like music, and like Bridges himself – can also evolve. 

Leon BridgesX

You don't know

“It’s such a blessing to play music again!” Bridges announced as he launched into “You Don’t Know,” a dance-inducing free-for-all that brought together the funkadelic energy of Prince with the classic joyful energy of the Pointer Sisters “Jump.”

The song laid groundwork for a series of high energy tunes including a funkified version of “Born Again;” a lively, rocked-up version of “Smooth Sailin’” complete with raw guitar riffs and sporadic drum solos; and a high speed version of “Flowers” that made it literally impossible to stand still.

Before anyone knew it, the 90-minute set had come nearly to a close. But Bridges capped it off with an equally compelling performance of “River,” a song Bridges described to NPR in 2016 as a story of change and redemption.

You could feel the power of hope as he sang “Take me to your river…” And you could see the audience respond in kind. Hands raised up from the enrapt crowd and swayed in time with the music. Meanwhile, Bridges’ vocals washed over the crowd, like a cold rain on a hot day. As he delivered the final lyrics, “Take me to your river...I wanna know… “ a roar rose up from the audience.

The cacophony of voices continued, even as the stage emptied and the lights grew brighter. It ebbed and flowed in deafening waves that reverberated from corner to corner of the pavilion even as the crowds dispersed.

Every live musical performance offers something that can’t be gleaned from merely listening to an album. In Bridges case, it’s the magical combination of authenticity, energy and raw talent that transports the audience above and beyond.

Set list

  1. "Shy" (Good Thing)
  2. "Steam" (Gold-Diggers Sound)
  3. "Bad Bad News" (Good Thing)
  4. "Beyond" (Good Thing)
  5. "Coming Home" (Coming Home)
  6. "Brown Skin Girl" (Coming Home)
  7. "Motorbike" (Gold-Diggers Sound)
  8. "Details" (Gold-Diggers Sound)
  9. "Sweeter" (Gold-Diggers Sound)
  10. "Lions" (Good Thing)
  11. "You Don’t Know" (Good Thing)
  12. "Mrs." (Good Thing)
  13. "Born Again" (Gold-Diggers Sound)
  14. "Texas Sun" (EP)
  15. "Smooth Sailin’" (Coming Home)
  16. "Flowers" (Coming Home)
  17. "River" (Coming Home)
Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.