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“Where do you get the balls to change your name from Gordon to ‘Sting’?” asked the comedian Dana Carvey sometime in the mid-90’s, when the musician’s stage name was still viable stand-up fodder. One might ask the same of John Stephens, who changed his name to John Legend while he was still a small-time act in Chicago. To his credit, Legend’s spent the intervening years slowly justifying his ambitious moniker, carving out a niche of the outskirts of pop R&B, not far from its borders with rock and big-band. He brought his horn section, dancing girls, and Clorox-white pants to Merriweather Friday.
Legend’s little brother, Vaughn Anthony, was the first opener, and it’s well that he was not so presumptuous in his selection of a stage name as big brother. Anthony’s songs seemed primarily vehicles for conveying past sexual conquests in anticipation of future ones. Apropos, he shed articles of clothing as his set progressed, revealing a physique that was more well-developed than his musicianship. His voice was fine, but not terribly interesting—a mixture of crooning vulnerability and blunt sexual confidence. It would not surprise me if he makes piles of money.
India.Arie, the sporting what might be the first Gmail-inspired stage name, sought to restore purity to those besotted by Anthony’s laciviousness with a series of life-affirming, thoroughly unsexual spirituals. She was graceful in song but decidedly awkward in between-song banter, where she gesticulated stiffly like a malfunctioning robot while holding forth in jejune terms on “the sort of, you know, interconnectedness of all things.” (This might have been what she was getting at…) Her songs were more articulate, professing a philosophy of positive thinking, personal strength, and self-love. While Arie’s lyrics occasionally resembled what you might find in the spiritual/self-help section of your local Barnes and Noble, her earnesty and lack of image consciousness was refreshing in light of Anthony’s striptease/kiss-and-tell (and, to an extent, Legend’s messianic theatrics); the only article she shed during her performance—in a revolt against affectation—was her dreadlocked wig.
Legend, for his part, struck a subtle balance between his brother’s lechery and Arie’s righteousness in a performance that was anything but subtle. Dressed all in white, Legend appeared in the audience beneath a Biblical pool of light (and surrounded by cherubim in the form of three enormous bodyguards) and kicked off the show with “Redemption Song” — an implicitly Obama-inspired tribute to a forebear whose legend is a matter of status, not surname.
But this brief nod to politics gave way, in short order, to monstrous dance grooves. “Forget about the news / let’s put on our dancin’ shoes,” Legend proposed on “Slow Dance,” a smooth, Temptations-style tune off his second album, Once Again. He led by example, beckoning a smitten audience member to the stage to join him for a meta-dance. Other times he left the dancing to the rest of us, jamming on the piano as his band kicked up a whirlwind. Legend’s guitarist—a stoic whale of a man whose name I’d mention if I could find it on the band’s Web site—gave a technical clinic while managing to appear completely unimpressed with himself.
Legend’s music, for the sake of convenience, is often described as R&B. But Friday’s show demonstrated the folly of pigeonholing him. At times, the performers summoned a maelstrom of rock-‘n’-roll so epic as to overwhelm the modern R&B trope—particularlywhen “I Can Change” suddenly exploded into the Beatles‘ “She’s So Heavy.” Others songs, particularly those featuring Legend at the piano, assumed the form of Burt Bacharach-style parlor pop , with the singer showcasing his effortless command of the instrument with twinkling mid-verse fills. More often than not, Legend would source multiple styles within a single song. All hung together by the common thread of his voice: a chesty tenor, adroit enough to preclude any suspicions about studio voice-doping but with just enough strain to sing, “we’re just ordinary people…” and have us buy it.
He’s underselling, of course. John Stephens might not be a Legend yet, but I’ll grant him extraordinary.