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Timothy Finn blogs about the Kansas City music scene

John Legend fills a palatial room with personality, class and elegant soul

05/08/2014 7:37 AM

05/08/2014 10:10 AM

There was a string quartet but no symphony or orchestra.

Yet there was plenty of class and eleganceWednesday night inside Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, where John Legend entertained a full house.

“Intimate, acoustic and stripped-down” is how his An Evening With John Legend: The All of Me Tour was billed, and Legend spent nearly two hours living up to the show’s billing.

He brought some support: a cellist, two violinists and a violist plus guitarist Ryan Lerman, who is also his music director. Throughout the set, they added embroidery to Legend’s silky ballads, accompanying him as he serenaded a crowd that showered him with applause and affection (and recorded an inordinate amount of video footage on cell phones).

But mostly this was Legend’s show: his songs, his voice and his own accompaniment on the piano. His intent, he said, was to create a “living room” environment. Although that might seem a little far-fetched in a room as vast and opulent as Helzberg Hall, he did manage to muster a mood that was warm, intimate and personal. His charm had a lot to do with that.

He told stories about the family that raised him in a Pentecostal church and introduced him to music and about the father who loved Red Lobster and taught him to be a gentleman. He told the back story to the song “Maxine,” dovetailing it with the history of Nancy Wilson’s “Guess Who I Saw Today,” another song about betrayal.

He also paused to acknowledge the 10 fans sitting in a row of loveseats at the back of the stage, dedicating a song to a couple who said they’d only been dating for three weeks.

“Here’s to many more weeks of dating,” he deadpanned.

The setlist spanned all four of his full-length albums, but focused heavily on his latest, “Love in the Future.” He opened with one of its tracks, “Made to Love,” then “Tonight (Best You Ever Had), a song from the “Think Like a Man” soundtrack.

Legend is a balladeer with an expressive and agile voice who writes R&B and soul tunes with lounge-jazz accents. Stripped down to vocals and minimal instrumentation, most of his songs bared their primitive virtues.

His songcraft doesn’t muster the crackle and pop of classic Motown or Stax/Volt R&B and soul, but Legend’s refined songs are melodic and and typically ride a groove that is mellow but engaging.

The 20-song setlist included two covers: a deep-soul version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and a heavy gospel-infused rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Both received thunderous ovations.

He coaxed the crowd into several sing-alongs: during “Green Light,” one of his funkier tunes; and then “Ordinary People,” a track that goes back to his first album, “Get Lifted,” now 10 years old.

But he’d saved his best for the encore: his latest hit, “All Of Me.” It was rendered only in piano, his voice and the hundreds of fans who joined him on the chorus, stripping the song down to a heartfelt moment between the guy who wrote the song and a roomful of fans who fell in love with it.

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