John Legend at Constitution Hall

John Legend (in Houston last month) played Constitution Hall on Tuesday.
John Legend (in Houston last month) played Constitution Hall on Tuesday. (By Kevin Winter -- Getty Images)
Thursday, December 11, 2008

Soul savior John Legend performed nearly as many songs from each of his prior two studio discs as from his new "Evolver" during a performance Tuesday at Constitution Hall. And with good reason: His old records are much better.

Legend is (was?) an unabashed R&B/gospel/soul alchemist and classicist. He strode onstage from the back of the hall dressed for winter 1981 (skinny tie, fingerless gloves), then sang for 100 minutes like Marvin Gaye in '71, or Sam Cooke in '61. "Evolver" feels like his misnamed bid to get his tunes into dentists' offices and Volvo dealerships; the timeless, trenchant grit of "Get Lifted," his Grammy-winning 2004 debut, has all but vanished.

This decline was less glaring onstage than when hearing the record, because nearly every one of the 18 numbers Legend stuffed into the show's first hour came slathered in the same sauce of keyboards and horns and keyboards and beats and keyboards and keyboards. You'd expect the singer of a choice babymaking jam such as "Slow Dance" (this highlight found the 29-year-old star reminiscing about high school parties scored by the likes of Jodeci and pre-indictment R. Kelly) to understand the critical importance of cooling it down once in a while.

Not that his lithe voice had trouble keeping up. The Artist Formerly Known as John Stephens has got pipes for days, and the ease and energy with which he commands the stage pegs him as R&B's answer to Bono -- another pint-size guy with 55-gallon charisma who likes to emote, hang out with economist Jeffrey Sachs and found African charities. The show was at its best when it was at its simplest: Legend's solo-piano encore of "Ordinary People" (for which he donned a tuxedo) was riveting. Next time, more of this, please.

Paradoxically, two other high points came from that ho-hum "Evolver" album: "Everybody Knows," which began with Legend accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and backup singers and included a section of Prince's "Adore," relieved the bombast with mischief. A half-hour later, the unofficial Obama campaign theme, "If You're Out There," brought the uneven show in for a triumphant landing.

-- Chris Klimek

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