By Charles Hallman
The first time I saw and heard John Legend live was during a one-song performance at a Super Bowl eve concert in Detroit in 2006. He then sang his breakout hit “Ordinary People” pretty straight to the vest. The second time was a bit longer than the first, but not better.
Unlike the song’s “Take it slow” refrain, the nine-time Grammy Award winner acted more like he had a plane to catch with his subdued 25-minute-barely performance at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theatre May 22. Legend was in town primarily to speak on education, and afterwards gave a five-song set.
The pianist began with a cover of “Wake Up Everybody” that he did with the Roots on his 2006 Wake Up album. However, Legend’s smooth yet unimaginative voice didn’t echo images of the late Teddy Pendergrass, who soulfully pleaded the 1975 McFadden and Whitehead number-one classic — but the mostly youthful crowd couldn’t or didn’t know the difference.
His second cover was “Save Room,” which was haughtily familiar to “Spooky” by the Classics IV from the 1960’s. Although Legend’s clearly extended sampling was more soulful than the original, probably only those from my generation who remembers the song from AM radio way back when would know the difference.
Oh, Legend had the ladies ooohing over “Tonight (Best You’ve Ever Had),” which actually was the singer’s best attempt all night to go even a little bit beyond the recording. It was the same for “Green Light” as well.
He closed with his breakout hit, which Legend got an impromptu backup assistance from the audience on the song refrain. This prompted a quick review from a man sitting directly behind me: “I didn’t come to hear the crowd sing.”
The man paid $40 to hear the singer, and I could fully understand his frustration. For that amount he expected more, and should have. Perhaps Legend was worn out from his hour-long talk despite previously warning the audience, “I’m a musician, not a superintendent.” Nonetheless the estimated 900-person crowd, complete with females, hooted and shrieked through each song. The only thing missing besides a better show was a bum rush to the stage.
Undoubtedly Legend has proved his musical chops and, definitely by the response from the crowd, he has a following as well. He didn’t lip sync his songs, but as an entertainer charging nearly half a hundred bucks, the singer left a lot to be desired — actually $40 worth.
I had no incentive to go home afterwards and play a musical marathon like I’ve done after hearing Bill Withers, Earl Klugh (multiple times), the Spinners, Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Brothers Johnson. Or to go buy the Shaft soundtrack on the same night after seeing the original classic in the theater back as a high schooler.
Those were performers who gave better performances at half the price and I didn’t go alone. Unlike his song, Legend’s was not the best I ever heard.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected].