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Photos by Julia LeConte.
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JOHN LEGEND at the Molson Amphitheatre, Friday, August 8. Rating: NNN
"I don't like this guy," my friend said to me two nights ago, as I was playing him John Legend's latest record, Love in the Future.
Not like John Legend? Pfft. His tastes must be so warped by the new-school leanings of Frank Ocean, the Weeknd and Blood Orange, I thought, that he cannot appreciate the classic R&B stylings of one of the finest singer/songwriters to ever grace a Grammys red carpet. How sad.
Still, I was irked. Until that very moment, I had been operating under the false assumption that John Legend was one of those universally admired things - like pizza, or an ocean breeze, or 1990s Mariah Carey.
So, it was with that slight feeling of unease that I - ten-year John Legend enthusiast - attended my very first John Legend concert (don't ask) at the Molson Amphitheatre on Friday. Rose-coloured Ray-Bans checked at the turnstiles.
My initial impressions were as expected. For a busy concert-goer, a John Legend concert is a peaceful respite. Where entry is swift and hassle-free, lines are short and the setting sun is turning the sky an impossible shade of dusty mauve. Where a sorta-full amphitheatre gets to actually sit down for most of the show. Where people will stink-eye you hard for coming in halfway through the first song (apologies to section 201, row J), but where there are enough empty rows that you can climb out a different way when you need a pee break. Where literally everyone is on a date, but where you make a note to add John Legend to your "can take mom and dad to this" list of shows.
Where the singer appears at 8:30 on the dot, wearing an extremely well-tailored navy suit and a white shirt buttoned all the way to his throat, as per the GQ trends du jour, takes a seat at his majestic Yamaha piano and starts casually crooning Made To Love, one of the better songs from his latest album.
Legend has the onstage charisma of a former child star: completely at ease, always "on," dashing-and-he-knows-it swagger. The charming confidence that befits a man who changed his last name from Stephens to Legend.
So, stardom becomes him. But he did wait a little while to get it, he told us, as he took us through some of his early claims to fame: the piano man on Lauryn Hill's brilliant song Everything Is Everything; being Kanye West's sidekick on Usher's Confessions tour; accompanying Alicia Keys on the, uh, keys. His between-song storytelling is cheesy, but not oppressively so, and people ate it up.
He occasionally stepped away from the piano to get some mild exercise. But whether sitting at the piano, or standing at the mic, Legend's voice is so full and rich - outstandingly good - that you think: Damn, this guy turns it up live. Or else: Damn, I have to stop listening to John Legend on my MacBook speakers. Songs like Maxine (about a woman he suspects is stepping out) showcased it particularly well. And when he got to the bridge of a Bridge Over Troubled Water cover, you could tell he was the obvious standout in his early days of singing in the church choir.
His backing band - which included a string quartet, because, of course - leant John Legend-esque ceremony to the occasion, but Legend's own piano playing was as good as any of his musicians. That Yamaha sounded perfect, like you were in the middle of nowhere listening to it, and only it. Overall, the sound last night was so great that you almost didn't think about it - the Molson Amp was made for a concert like this.
The show lagged occasionally during his more boring songs, like Good Morning, or uninteresting interpretations, like his rendition of the Beatles' Something. But mostly, he kept the lovers spellbound and swaying. Eyes were moist, hands were held, hearts were touched. His best moments found him revelling in his own hit catalogue: Ordinary People, Used To Love U, Who Do We Think We Are, a short-but-sweet solo encore where we got his ubiquitous radio hit All Of Me.
A John Legend concert is classy. I hate that word, because it implies a certain amount of boringness, but it's true. A John Legend concert isn't stuffy, per se. But classy. And classy is great. But John Legend is a young man. And it seems like he's skipped the opportunity for sexy and edgy and fun and bee-lined straight to the Elton John stadium tour years. This being my first John Legend concert, I can't say whether this was always the case, but it seems a touch premature.
I still love John Legend. I mean, piano ballads are the best part of any concert. So, a concert full of piano balladry is basically heaven. Ordinary People is still the perfect song to make up or break up to. But I can see now why not every human being on the planet would love John Legend. He is what would happen if Stevie Wonder and Michael Bublé made a baby. But he could use Madonna or Lady Gaga or Michael Jackson as an involved aunt or uncle. That would really make him live up to his name.