|John Legend with the Roots on September 7, 2010|
I've never been much of a John Legend fan. To my ears, he's too damned polite; decent Sunday brunch music perhaps, but entirely middle of the road. Safe. Nice. Harmless. He's clearly in the tradition of upwardly mobile 70's soul - Donnie Hathaway, Roberta Flack, the softer pieces of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, and while he may be working in the soul tradition, if you asked me whether the dude has any soul, my answer would have been no.
So I went to last night's John Legend/Roots show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg more excited to see the Roots, well actually, Questlove, than hear anything off of their upcoming album. Wake Up. And indeed, the show was mainly a polite affair, only confirming many of my feelings about Legend.
But for the last song of the main set, they went into a version of Bill Withers' "I Can't Write Left-Handed,"from Withers' classic Live At Carnegie Hall, and a transformation took place. The song, written from the point of view of a wounded Vietnam Vet, was one of the best anti-war songs of its era, and in recreating it in an era of war all the time around the world, both Legend and the Roots got way beyond the polite.
Legend sunk his teeth into the song; in taking on singing for someone else, he gave himself the freedom to not be nice, to give voice to rage, sorrow, and resentment. He moaned, yelled, shouted and caressed his own aggression. He pounded his piano, responding to the anguish in his vocals with thunderous and jazzy little runs. It was revelatory.
The Roots, who had played within themselves all night, like a great basketball player told that they can only do lay-ups and not dunk, finally let loose, and began to tear it up, especially guitarist "Captain" Kirk Douglas who played with both speed and suppleness, elevating the tension with each pass through the chorus. Questlove, who had the visage of a funeral director for most of the night, finally began to beam with a grin as he and Legend looked at each other and kept taking it higher. Each time I thought the song might be concluded, they attacked once more, and when they finally finished, the crowd erupted in both release and appreciation. They came to do an encore, but it was really superfluous - nothing else was necessary.
I came away with a new opinion of John Legend. I still feel no need to put his albums on, but I'm far more interested to hear what he does next - perhaps what's been missing in his music up until now is anger, an anger that would curb his tendency for syrup, and would make his realm of romance far more powerful and earned. And for the question, is John Legend soulful, I have a new answer. His music by and large may not be soulful, but down deep, the man has soul.