Thursday, May 8, 2014

John Legend made the Kauffman Center into a living room performance, sort of

Posted By on Thu, May 8, 2014 at 8:50 AM

click to enlarge APRIL FLEMING
  • April Fleming

In the 10 years since the release of Get Lifted, John Legend's debut album, the deeply talented pianist and singer has won nine Grammy awards, and has worked with some of the top names in the music business, including Kanye West (whose album imprint GOOD released Get Lifted), Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill, the Roots, Dialated Peoples and Alicia Keys, among many others. But with all that success, he'd never had a #1 single - that is, until yesterday, when "All of Me" hit the top of the charts. 

The audience at last night's sold-out Kauffman Center performance got to learn a lot more about the singer, his background, his early start in music and even about his songwriting process for "An Evening with John Legend."


The show began just after 7 p.m., with no opening act. A string quartet, lit only with a spotlight, played a short introduction before Legend, lit from the back, emerged on to the stage. The stage set-up was casual, inspired perhaps by shows like VH1 Storytellers or MTV Unplugged, with couches lining the back of the stage. A handful of people were selected to enjoy the show from the couches, and Legend joked with them as the show began: "Who do you know?"

click to enlarge APRIL FLEMING
  • April Fleming

Throughout the evening, Legend engaged in the Storytellers-style format, explaining that he wanted the venue to feel like he was performing in his living room. "A very, very nice living room," he joked. He softly played piano while giving background on the songs he was performing or telling the audience about how his career began.

After performing "Maxine," he told the story about how he came to choose the name for the fictional song, noting that he was looking for something two syllables, and classic and old fashioned-sounding. His grandmother's middle name, unbeknownst to him, was Maxine, and she loved the shoutout (real or not), despite that the character in the song is a sort of villainous two-timer. Legend also explained that the song was inspired by Nancy Wilson's "Guess Who I Saw Today" which tells the story of a woman, enjoying a drink by herself at a restaurant. She sees a couple, deeply in love, and watches them. The song's kick is at the end she realizes that the man in the couple is her lover. Guess who I saw today, the lyric goes. It was you.

A highlight of the two-hour (almost to the minute) show was a performance of Legend's cover of "Dancing in the Dark," which Legend originally performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon during a Bruce Springsteen tribute week. Legend explained that he had been hoping to hear after the TV performance whether Bruce liked it or not, but no word from the Boss ever came. A year later, Springsteen wrote Legend a personal letter asking him to perform the song at a charity event. "Phew," said Legend.

click to enlarge APRIL FLEMING
  • April Fleming

Legend is not really breaking any new ground with his songwriting, but impresses with his silky voice and prodigious talent on the piano, which is every big as strong as his albums and television performances indicate. The setlist featured songs from each of his five studio albums, but principally his 2013 release, "Love in the Future." His jazz and R&B influences are apparent, particularly in the live performances, arranged by Legend's guitar player. The arrangements were typically very mellow and suited to the "living room" (which very much did not feel like a living room) environment that Legend was going for.

That mellowness did have an effect on the audience, which, while being supportive and seemingly happy to be there, could not seem to muster the energy for robust sing-alongs, which Legend frequently called for. You could hear a few people, but as Legend kept saying "You sound so good, KC" he was clearly just being kind. KC, you could barely be heard, even with Helzberg's amazing acoustics. It also wasn't necessarily helpful that the audience members onstage usually looked bored. Two women were slumped over their couches - they at least felt like they were in their living rooms.

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