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Live review: John Legend at the Gibson Amphitheatre

January 14, 2009 |  1:28 pm

A big dose of vanilla smooth.


"John Legend is suave and smooth," read a text message crawling across the jumbo screen before the 13-time Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter's performance at the Gibson Amphitheatre on Tuesday. Indeed, with songs so silken and seamless as to be soporific, the 30-year-old R&B balladeer has emerged as the preeminent practitioner of vanilla latte soul for the sport coat-and-cravat crowd, a Brian McKnight for Generation Y.

To his credit, Legend affects a winsome affability on-stage and knows his role, winking at the audience, "I'm just here to set things off for y'all." In response, the capacity crowd swooned and swayed. The show was more akin to an hour-and-a-half love-in than rhythm-and-blues revue.

Blessed with a golden-throated baritone, virtuosic piano chops, a slick backing band (with horn section) and the clean-cut charm to make his heavily female fan-base faint, Legend's strengths also reveal his flaws. So adept at sparking ardor, Legend's songbook is almost astonishingly one-note. Which wouldn't necessarily be a problem were the songs not so sonically similar in construction (mawkish piano-based slow jams or up-tempo Usher-lite workouts) and laden with cliché.

In particular, "P.D.A. (We Just Don't Care)," with its admonition of "let's go to the park," and banal video images of people frolicking on swing sets, was saccharine enough to cause root canal. The standout tracks from Legend's "Evolver" album, "Quickly," "It's Over" and "Green Light," suffered without the high-wattage charisma of their respective guest stars, Brandy, Kanye West and OutKast's Andre 3000.

At one point, Legend stressed the importance of the slow jam to young lovers, name-dropping the tunes on which he grew up: Jodeci's "Feenin,' " R. Kelly's "Bump N' Grind," H-Town's, "Knocking the Boots." Yet Legend lacks the tension and danger inherent in that music. Even clad in a leather jacket and tight trousers, he is almost incapable of posing menace. Legend's just the type of guy you'd want your sister to bring home: Ivy League educated and seemingly incapable of being ill-mannered.
Ultimately, this makes Legend impossible to dislike but infinitely less interesting than his A-list peers -- less acrobatic than Usher, less creative than T-Pain and less idiosyncratic than R. Kelly. Underneath the greaser jacket, Legend was nattily attired in a checkered shirt and strawberry red tie. He looked like a consummate professional. Maybe next time he'll loosen the knot.

Legend's opener, his British protégée Estelle, turned in a commendable, if not yeoman-like, performance. Best known for her ubiquitous Kanye West duo, "American Boy," the 28-year-old flashed the ample versatility displayed on her breakthrough album, "Shine."

Injecting funny, female empowerment asides in a thick West London patois helped the charismatic diva-in-training from being overly rote and served to explicate "Shine's" chart success, Mercury Prize nomination and twin Grammy nods.

-Jeff Weiss

Photo John Legend last month in Houston. Credit: Associated Press