MANHATTAN, NY—Thanks to the Super Bowl's arrival in the New York/New Jersey region, live music fans in the area had the opportunity to enjoy corporate-sponsored performances by big-name artists in small venues. Citibank was among the sponsors, and during the week before the game hosted the series Citi Presents Evenings With Legends, featuring both musicians and athletes. Appropriately, the first music event in the legends series was John Legend, performing solo on a small stage at the McKittrick Hotel, where tickets sold for $400 apiece.
Born John Roger Stephens on December 28, 1978, in Springfield, Ohio, he began playing the piano at age four and performed with his church choir at age seven. As a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he led Counterparts, a co-ed jazz and pop a cappella group. He met Lauryn Hill and she hired him to play piano on a song from her album, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. Upon his graduation in 1999, he performed in the Philadelphia area and independently released two albums: his self-titled demo in 2000 and Live At Jimmy's Uptown in 2001. He met an up-and-coming Kanye West and sang on his album. Legend made guest appearances on albums by Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, the Black Eyed Peas and others, while his own career blossomed. Legend received the Starlight Award from the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2007 and has won nine Grammy Awards. His most recent album is 2013's Love In The Future.
In a small and dimly-lit nightclub at the McKittrick Hotel, Legend walked on stage with no fanfare or introduction, sat at a grand piano and sang a 60-minute set of stripped-down versions of his popular songs and a few covers. No backing musicians or vocalists, no pre-recorded tracks, no electronic embellishments or effects—in today's music world, this was a very daring challenge. This show would prove if the talent was real or manufactured.
Legend easily passed the test. His soulful singing was superb, his piano playing was extraordinary, and his song craft was masterful. The opening song, "Made To Love," set the tone of the evening, as Legend sang his love song with a supple tenor and a naked sincerity, periodically turning away from the microphone to view and smile at his audience. The set spanned his 10 years of best-sellers, along with a slowed-down interpretation of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing In The Dark" and a bouncy version of the Beatles' "Here Comes The Sun." For all their worth in traditional pop romanticism, the collection of songs was never excessively cliché nor trite. Perhaps this was because he never sacrificed his speedy yet articulate piano playing, which shifted throughout the set from his classical roots to jazz interludes.
As performed tonight, the songs were more than catchy lyrics and melodies. They were richly integrated compositions performed by a talented pianist, lyricist and vocalist. This was a first class act for serious adult music fans.
For more information on John Legend, go to johnlegend.com.