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June 8, 2010

John Legend Wakes Up

The jury is still out on John Legend, the R&B singer and keyboardist who has put out three hit albums, won a bunch of Grammy Awards and still somehow has yet to fully "arrive." In this climate, it's easy to doubt his long-term prospects: Nice voice and what else? Fast rise and then what? Some schmaltz, a scattered few smartly turned singles, and then....

Friday night at World Café Live in Philadelphia, Legend suggested that he's ready to move beyond the couch where romantic crooners earn their keep.

Legend's backing band was the Roots, the most intense (and hardest-working) furnace in all of popular music. His demeanor was more "musician" -- he sang from behind a keyboard -- than "star." And, crucially, his material came mostly from the socially aware pages of the '70s R&B songbook -- the set opened with a sermon in street metaphysics, the Les McCann/Eddie Harris classic "Compared to What," and included Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "Wake Up Everybody" and Bill Withers' haunting wounded-soldier ode "I Can't Write Left-Handed."

The show was part of the annual Non-Comm radio convention, a gathering of professionals involved in non-commercial "Adult Alternative" radio. It was a fitting place to make public a collaboration that's been simmering for a few years, and will officially go aboveground when an album (working title: The Wake Up Sessions) is released in the fall.

Legend attended the University of Pennsylvania, and is familiar with what might be called The Roots Effect -- this steamrolling rhythm section makes all kinds of artists sound better. He pumped out solid churchgoing chords, and sang the lamenting melodies with a sense of purpose. And he listened to what was happening behind him: Rather than overwhelm the music with endless loverman embellishments, as per usual in commercial R&B, Legend gave these tunes -- many inspired by the Vietnam War but certainly relevant to current conflicts -- crisp, businesslike, contortion-free readings. His newfound restraint made it possible to savor the details of the Roots' groovetending -- this crew changes ordinary backbeats into intricately chopped polyrhythms that morph measure by delightful measure -- and sparked curiosity about where the collaboration might go. As the houselights came up, I overheard one sweaty fan saying, "Can't wait until they do an album of James Brown covers."

June 8, 2010 8:25 AM | | Comments (0)

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