Most weekend nights on U Street NW, hormones hang so heavy in the air they leave a film on the skin. But just one block off the nightlife strip Friday night, the 9:30 Club had been sealed off from the sexual haze.
An air of propriety had taken over, and it emanated from Leon Bridges, the throwback R&B singer who snapped his fingers onstage like the ghost of sock hops past.
Bridges seems forever ready to have his photo shot in black-and-white. This year he broke out of Fort Worth with “Coming Home,” a competent and catchy LP immersed in the sounds of the Eisenhower era. But although the 26-year-old has rifled through Sam Cooke’s closet, he’s overlooked the skeletons.
For 70 minutes, Bridges and his band — impeccably dressed and tight as a girdle — treated an ecstatic audience to a string of jukebox-worthy tunes, notably the sweet “Brown Skin Girl,” earnest “Better Man” and unabashedly retro “Twistin’ & Groovin’.” In his narratives, women become “cutie pies” and men do gallant things like swim the Mississippi River to win them back. After a few of those, it’s easy to forget that Bridges was born the same year Madonna released “Like A Prayer.”
The songwriter has said he absorbed his knowledge of mid-20th-century rhythm and blues online. That could explain why it sounds so studied, yet so hollow.
“We just have one goal tonight, and that is to make you happy,” the Texan announced to the packed house a few songs in. While there are less charitable goals, there are also more daring ones.
Two hours before Bridges and Co. wrapped a two-song encore, opener Kali Uchis offered another flavor of nostalgia, this one slightly less chaste.
A rising vocalist who has found a fan base on stylish blogs, Uchis had already collaborated with Snoop Dogg before dropping her recent debut EP, “Por Vida.” Friday marked her first hometown show since she relocated from Alexandria, Va., to Los Angeles.
Cooing through songs that won her Internet acclaim — including her doo-woppy number “What They Say,” the irresistibly funky “Real” and her ganja-scented “Know What I Want” — Uchis reproduced some of the pouty, thrift-shop magic she brings to her recordings.
Like most artists who get big before they nail their routine, though, Uchis fell short of commanding the room. A third of the audience appeared to lose interest fast, turning to conversation or their phones. (Then again, this was a Leon Bridges crowd.)
“I know what I want,” Uchis sang, sounding sassy but unconvinced, even with a small gaggle of fans mouthing along from the front row.
It’s clear that both Uchis and Bridges know they want to capture a feeling lodged in the past. But the ingredient that makes vintage music so alluring is the same thing they both need: time.
Schweitzer is a freelance writer.