John Legend Delivers a Memorial Day to Remember

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There’s a reason why John Legend has become the go-to guy when an award show or sporting event needs a singer, and that’s because he has one of the purest voices on the planet. It’s a seamless combination of sexy, smooth sophistication, tailor-made for any occasion. But it’s one thing to watch on a television screen and another to experience in person.

Legend is an especially important artist for me as he was my main gateway drug into R&B and soul. I didn’t grow up listening to that style of music, and Legend was both traditional enough to inspire me to dive into the classics (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder) and forward-thinking enough to prepare my tastes for what was to come (Miguel, Frank Ocean).

I last saw Legend during his All of Me Tour in 2014. Inspired by the runaway success of that song, it featured simply him at his piano and was a career-marking achievement, about as good as a one-person show can get. His latest tour is in support of his fifth proper album, last year’s Darkness and Light, and is more of an extravagant production, featuring an eight-piece band, three backup singers and four giant LCD screens.

Legend’s second night of a back-to-back at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre was split into two halves. The first favored the singer out front in performer mode for his upbeat numbers, including new cuts “Penthouse Floor” and “Love Me Now” and his debut single from 2004, “Used to Love U.” After changing into a white suit jacket, naturally, he spent the remainder mostly behind the piano. The nearly two hours primarily consisted of recent material, which steers more towards modern pop, with eight of Darkness and Light’s tracks represented. Stripped away of the production veneer, the live arrangements leapt off the stage and made full use of the talent on it, especially the three-piece horn section.

Outside of Bruno Mars, not many current acts have a regular horn section. It’s regrettably underrated and when deployed properly can make a world of difference, such as on “Like I’m Gonna Lose You.” The studio version with Meghan Trainor is a fairly standard run-of-the-mill pop song. It’s nothing particularly special. But remove Trainor, add the live touch and extended instrumentals, and the song suddenly comes alive. Turns out a strong foundation was there all along.

Over the course of the chilly evening, Legend was his typical suave self. He made a joke about first dates, saying tonight he was setting new couples up for the alley oop and now all they had to do was put it in. “That was a little foul, I’m sorry,” he laughed. Then during “Slow Dance” he brought up a clearly beside herself woman to dance with him onstage, at one point dropping to his knees and removing his jacket to the delight of many in attendance.

One of the main themes of the night was family, as images of Legend’s wife, model Chrissy Teigen, and their new daughter, Luna, were projected over multiple songs. At the halfway mark, Legend entertainingly introduced a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” and its special relation to their family. His job during the pregnancy last year was to have a playlist ready for the birth. So when the day came, he started with mellow songs but his wife kept asking him to play faster music. “Superfly” was the song that soundtracked when Luna came out.

A few songs later during “Right by You (For Luna),” one of the centerpieces on Darkness and Light, Legend talked more about his daughter and the inspiration she’s made. “In the song we pose a lot more questions than answers. As new parents, we’re very uncertain of a lot of things. We’re learning as we go. We hope we raise a daughter who is loving and kind, intelligent and a good leader. Somebody that brings beauty into the world. All we can do as parents is try our best. We can’t protect them from all the pain they’re going to feel, all the heartache. But as long as I’m here, I’ll be there for her.”

An exciting part of a John Legend concert is seeing what covers he does. On his last run it was Bruce Springsteen and Simon & Garfunkel, both of which still blow me away whenever I hear them. In addition to the funky “Superfly,” the other selection this time was “God Only Knows,” which he sang earlier this year at the Oscars. The Beach Boys classic is on the shortlist of greatest songs ever written and Legend made it his own by going straight a cappella. It was stunning.

Noted rising talent Gallant has a stunning voice of his own and continued to display promise in the opening slot. Still touring off his acclaimed debut album Ology, his high falsetto got an impressive workout throughout, proving why he is one of the strongest singers to come from the scene since Miguel. Uncoincidentally, Legend also gave the L.A. native Miguel a shout-out before starting “Overload,” which the two wrote together.

This had a different feel, though, than when Gallant headlined the Fonda last fall. His music very specifically concentrates on mood and atmosphere, so being outside in daylight was not the most natural translation. He did a good job of moving around on the Greek stage, but the 25-year-old’s engagement skills could use a little finessing for a larger audience.

 

Contrast that with the older Legend, who at the age of 38 is in his musical prime and has learned to be more refined. But while his vocal prowess is unmatched in modern popular music, he’s still searching for that career-defining album. His last two efforts have been solid pop records with moments of greatness sprinkled in, but he has yet to find his What’s Going On or the artistic statements Kanye West thrives at making, the man instrumental in getting Legend’s career off the ground. After conquering the charts with “All of Me,” that seems to be the next creative mountain to climb.

Back to the show, the biggest surprise was how little politics were mentioned, considering it was Memorial Day and Legend is well known for being outspoken in that arena. There was an added line on “Slow Dance” about tuning out “Trump’s bullshit,” and “Wake Up Everybody” was a timely inclusion, but any direct message was saved for the closer “Glory,” the Oscar-winning song Legend wrote with Common, who had joined him onstage the night before. Images from the civil rights protests of the 1960s were interwoven with clips of recent marches and Black Lives Matter, an evocative end and reminder that the ultimate dream has yet to be realized.

Selma celebrated the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and all those who marched with him for voting rights, for freedom, for justice, for equality for everybody,” Legend explained. “Sometimes we get frustrated because it feels we’re still marching for the same things. But I won’t give up. I hope you won’t either. And one day when the glory comes, it will be ours.”

Setlist

1. I Know Better
2. Penthouse Floor
3. Tonight (Best You Ever Had)
4. Love Me Now
5. Made to Love
6. Darkness and Light
7. Overload
8. What You Do to Me
9. Used to Love U
10. Save the Night
11. Like I’m Gonna Lose You
12. Save Room
13. Slow Dance
14. Superfly (Curtis Mayfield cover)
15. Wake Up Everybody (Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes cover)
16. Ordinary People
17. Right by You (For Luna)
18. God Only Knows (The Beach Boys cover)
19. Surefire
20. Green Light
21. Who Do We Think We Are
22. You & I (Nobody in the World)
23. So High
Encore
24. All of Me
25. Glory

Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist

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