John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Leon Bridges’ “River” is Classic Soul

Texas artist exemplifies the youthful artistry also on display at Express MKE concert.

By - May 15th, 2018 03:42 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
Leon Bridges. Photo from Facebook.

Leon Bridges. Photo from Facebook.

Where do artists like Leon Bridges come from? Listening to his song “River” and watching the powerful images in the video that accompanies it, you can’t help but wonder. Bridges grew up in Texas, a state that for all its problems, seems to get music right on a regular basis. While it helps to be from a place that pays attention to its young artists, it still doesn’t tell us how these young and expressive voices are formed.

More often than not, creativity is forged under great pressure. Poverty, neglect and even abuse, when conquered, can be be a long-lasting source of energy for the kind of urgent expression we respond to strongly. Conditions in Milwaukee, unfortunately, are ideal for this kind of artist. We’re at the top of the list for poverty and segregation, infant mortality and a lot of other things we’d rather not brag about. There is no doubt abundant talent is growing in the middle of this city, but can we get it from here to the rest of the world?

This Thursday, Express Yourself Milwaukee, an organization that uses the arts to alleviate the crushing trauma and chaos among the most at-risk youth in this city, will have their annual show at the Miller High Life Theatre. (Full disclosure: I am an enthusiastic volunteer for this group.) This year the show is called “Move It,” and I would recommend it even if it weren’t free. In that show, a young man named Demetrius Gulliford will sing Bridges’ song. He will accompany himself on the piano which he plays with a lyrical touch that brings to mind Keith Jarrett.

Meech, as he is called, is not atypical of the self-taught artists in this town I’ve encountered who’ve come up playing Gospel music, so it’s not surprising when he walks over to the drum kit, sits down like he was born with sticks in his hands and plays with supreme confidence and style. If you have lost your sense of wonder, a little time with Meech will restore it in a hurry. When you add in all the other young performers, a house band full of the best musicians in this town, plus a cameo from Speech, the Milwaukee native and iconic leader of Arrested Development, and this show should be spectacular. But let’s get back to Bridges and his lovely song.

There is plenty of what, for lack of a better term, you might call “secular gospel” going on here. But it’s hardly sanctified, coming to its story of redemption from a sinner’s point of view — and it leaves ample room for the imagination. While much of the vibe is straight from the church, the story it hints at has an almost noir-ish feel. Clocking in at just under seven minutes, there’s a beautiful interlude in the middle where everything stops, breaking down to a simple chant that then leads to some enigmatic shots of a crowd gathered in a kind of group baptism, before falling back into that memorable chorus. It’s oddly soothing to watch and listen to, even if I can’t quite figure out what’s going on.

Bridges is an artist of the kind that pops up now and again, making unmistakable and respectful references to the giants of Soul. I’ve heard comparisons to Sam Cooke, and that’s high praise. I’ve also heard some in the black music community criticize him for what they see as pandering to the Public Radio crowd, ie: white folks. I understand and I don’t. When Jazz artists take a similar classicist approach and pay homage to their illustrious history, the criticism isn’t as intense. Anyway, I’m sure Mr. Bridges can defend himself. He doesn’t have to worry about his lyrics, they do the job quite skillfully:

Been traveling these wide roads for so long
My heart’s been far from you
Ten-thousand miles gone

Oh, I wanna come near and give ya
Every part of me
But there’s blood on my hands
And my lips aren’t clean

In my darkness I remember
Momma’s words reoccur to me
“Surrender to the good Lord
And he’ll wipe your slate clean”

Take me to your river
I wanna go
Oh, go on
Take me to your river
I wanna know

Tip me in your smooth waters
I go in
As a man with many crimes
Come up for air
As my sins flow down the Jordan

Oh, I wanna come near and give ya
Every part of me
But there’s blood on my hands
And my lips aren’t clean

Take me to your river
I wanna go
Go on,
Take me to your river

I wanna know
I wanna go, wanna go, wanna go
I wanna know, wanna know, wanna know
Wanna go, wanna go, wanna go
Wanna know, wanna know, wanna know
Wanna go, wanna go, wanna go
Wanna know, wanna know, wanna know

Take me to your river
I wanna go
Lord, please let me know
Take me to your river
I wanna know

© Austin Jenkins / Chris Vivion / Joshua Block / Todd Michael Bridges

I was surprised to find this many writers at the bottom. It worries me that so many pop songs are now created by committee, and I hope this approach doesn’t wind up watering down Bridges’ work. He seems to be searching for a larger audience on his latest collection and that’s always a tricky moment in an artist’s career. It’s very hard to write, perform and produce a great song, not to mention a whole album, and keeping commerce out of your imaginative space gets harder and harder. Many careers that start out brilliantly are only a bad decision or two away from reminding you why the phrase “music business” often sounds like a nasty little oxymoron.

Speaking of that, there are some efforts afoot to add financial and other kinds of support to Milwaukee’s music scene. You’ll probably be hearing about it in the near future. The ones working on these plans know, as we all do, that there is enough talent in this town to start exporting it. If and when they succeed, someone like Meech may be able to step out of the shadows and onto a larger stage — even larger than the one he’ll be on next week. In a city where poverty is all too common, there are still many pockets of hope and vast potential. Stop by this Thursday, and experience just how uplifting it is to see and hear some of this talent.

Express Yourself MKE: Move It! 2018, 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 17th, Miller High Life Theatre.

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: Leon Bridges’ “River” is Classic Soul”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Keith Jarrett is one of my favorite pianists, so I’ll look forward to hearing Demetrius Gulliford play at the Express Yourself Milwaukee event (and thanks for letting me know about it!) while singing Bridges’s song.
    So many artists have pulled themselves up from difficult situations through art and music!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *