REVIEW: John Legend at The Mann Center, 8/2
On Saturday night America’s fiancé–and Penn alum—John Legend, arrived at the Mann Center with a singular mission: to get Philadelphia laid. The silken-voiced R&B crooner played a tight 100-minute set attended by cool, late summer breezes that whispered sweet nothings into our ears.
Legend is touring on the strength of his three current love songs, “All of Me,” “Made to Love,” and “You and I,” all written for his model wife of eight months, Chrissy Teigen. He is as wholesome as an artist who is constantly singing about intercourse can get. In this respect, and so many others, Legend is the anti-Robin Thicke. The latter blew into summer 2013 with the monster hit “Blurred Lines,” and then spent the ensuing months on an extended musical bachelor party. And not a nice bachelor party, either. Like, a bachelor party with two groomsmen who have probably committed a misdemeanor held at a strip club where mobsters make deals in the movies. Meanwhile, with the success of this year’s singles, Legend continues his 10-year streak of cranking out mid-tempo jams and ballads in an effort to corner the market on making everyone pregnant.
Legend is an artist in full control of all of his gifts. He has a voice that sounds like chocolate tastes. And not just any kind of chocolate: the expensive kind that your boss gives you at Christmas instead of a bonus. Beyond the voice, he possesses a swagger that rivals the charismatic flair of a young Sinatra. He began the evening with the anthem “Made to Love,” his first single off his most recent album, Love in the Future. That was followed by cheeky foreplay ballad “Best You Ever Had”, and the euphoric “Get Lifted.” As he sensually caressed the keys of his piano, his silver wedding band occasionally caught the light, sending a taunting gleam into the hungry eyes of love-struck audience members. Legend would occasionally gaze out into the audience with an impish grin, as if to say “Y’all are not ready for this.” America’s fiancé knows how charming he is. He knows you know. And he knows you know he knows you know.
The first half of the evening concluded with the up-tempo “Used to Love You,” and a simply stunning cover of “Something in the Way She Moves” by the Beatles. For the first time in the evening, Legend rose from his Yahama grand piano and sang at a mic stand. Bathed in light, arms akimbo, he was suave, commanding, lush and romantic. The night breezes even seemed to hush. It was an exquisite cover. Everything on Earth was right in that moment.
Heading into his second half, Legend played “Maxine,” its samba beat rousing us from a euphoric stupor. Afterward, he told a delightful story about how his grandmother had thought the song was a tribute to her even though it actually tells a story about being cuckolded. His banter, at this moment and throughout the concert, was so personable and charming, it was impossible not to imagine we were all on a collective date with him. When he asked “Is anyone here named Maxine?” dozens of women rose, screaming. “Some of y’all lying,” he purred. They were, but nobody could blame them.
The gathered masses being putty in his hands, Legend powered through “Again,” “Save Room,” “Good Morning,” “Green Light” and Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” each song whipping the audience into a new frenzy, albeit a subdued one.
The vibe of the night was decidedly mellow; the ushers turned a blind eye to people recording smartphones but were quick to address anyone whose device cast a bright light into the darkness. The dusky, romantic atmosphere—aided by expert lighting design that isolated the artist and kept the crowd cocooned in darkness—was key. This was not a stand-up-and-dance concert. This wasn’t even a sit-back-and-relax concert. This was a lie-on-the-floor-unbutton-your-blouse-and-fan-yourself-with-an-old-copy-of-Ebony concert.
The proceedings reached a fever pitch with a cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that cashed in on all John Legend’s slow-boiling fervor and gospel training. It brought the audience to its feet.
He segued seamlessly into his current hit “You and I,” and followed it up with sensual renditions of “Caught Up” and “So High.” It was only then—90 minutes into the concert—that this reviewer registered that Legend had been backed only by a string quartet, two guitarists and a drummer. The only voice we’d heard all night had been John Legend, and yet every song had been full, sometimes overwhelming. He’s a singer who doesn’t need a chorus of voices to fill the open-night air and every yearning heart. He’s everything you need all by himself.
Late in the evening, he paused, cast and baleful look into the audience and cooed “Some of y’all on date night tonight. I can’t make any promises, but I’m setting y’all up very nicely. Some of y’all might get lucky tonight.” We laughed but we all simultaneously held our breath. John Legend is thinking about us having sex, we thought. Legend continued, “When my father wanted to be romantic with my mother he’d take her to Red Lobster. That’s the secret to date night: a John Legend show or all-you-can-eat shrimp.” And with that we all rose as one, ordered cheddar biscuits to-go and got about the business of loving.