Legend keeps concert groove on solid ground


November 11, 2006


R&B star John Legend will never be accused of reinventing the wheel. During a generous set before a sold-out crowd at the Riviera Theatre Thursday night, fans heard echoes of Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles. But it would be just as wrong to accuse Legend of being unduly derivative or mired in nostalgia.

More than anything, the traits that link the multitalented, Ohio-bred singer, songwriter and piano player with his soul heroes from the past are an unerring feel for the subtle but sexy groove, a thorough devotion to instantly infectious melodies and a 1,000-watt charisma that makes the fellas wanna be him and the ladies ... well, you know.

In fact, one of the most entertaining moments in the show came when Legend went to pull an admiring female fan from the crowd to slow dance, and another bum-rushed the stage to cut in. For a moment, it seemed as if a title bout might break out as the two women vied for the honor. Ever the gentleman, Legend accommodated them both.

Fronting a tight and hard-grooving eight-piece band that included three backing vocalists (among them the star's brother, Vaughn Anthony) and two extra keyboardists to fatten up the sound, Legend mixed ballads and slow jams with more upbeat and kicking pop tunes from his 2 million-selling 2005 debut "Get Lifted" and its follow-up "Once Again," which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard albums chart last week.

Improved over last year
Legend isn't the most powerful or inventive vocalist, and his ear as a songwriter isn't flawless: Tunes such as "Where Did My Baby Go" and "P.D.A. (We Just Don't Care)" fall on the wrong side of slight and saccharine, and the first album's attempts to incorporate a bit of hip-hop still fell flat. But such missteps were few and far between.

The headliner was a much more comfortable and convincing performer than we saw during his performances in Chicago last year, and the high points of the evening were plentiful, including "Stereo," a rollicking tune that has as much in common with indie rock as R&B; the indelible "Maxine;" the last album's cheater's anthem, "She Don't Have to Know," and the opening "Heaven Only Knows."

"So let's make this night the best night / It's time for second chance. ... Drowned by the sound / Let's get back to touch and we'll get back on solid ground," Legend sang, and he may as well have been setting the agenda for the show and his career to date.

Opener Thicke falls flat
Opening for Legend, mining similar old-school sounds but never distinguishing himself or rising about his influences was blue-eyed soul man Robin Thicke. Anticipating skepticism from listeners who know him as the son of sitcom actor Alan Thicke, the singer emphasized that he was trying to carve out a career in the music business for a decade before the recent release of "The Evolution of Robin Thicke."

You'd think that in all of that time, he'd have learned to avoid his dreadful falsetto and stop posing and preening like a boy band reject, but alas, it wasn't the case.