February 20, 2008

Album Review: John Legend: Live From Philadelphia

When a musician is described as “old school” or “retro,” the implication is that the artist reflects an aesthetic more accustomed to that of a previous, creatively heralded era rather than what constitutes present trends. John Legend receives such labels, but not because his music sounds derivative or deliberately nostalgic. Rather, it’s because it summons the spirit and substance of classic rhythm & blues even as it embraces contemporary styles.

With only two studio albums under his belt, Legend has already exhibited a breadth of talent and potential. And with his latest album, Live From Philadelphia – which is available exclusively at Target – he demonstrates how well his music holds up on the concert stage. Given his relatively concise catalog thus far, it’s commendable that there are no ostentatious interludes or needless routines to comprise a full-length show. A few select covers get sprinkled in for good measure, including a scorching version of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” but Legend efficiently supplies most of the 19-song setlist.

In the church-rooted tradition of rhythm & blues, Legend blends secular themes with spiritual undertones. His backup singers often sound like a choir and they employ the gospel technique of call and response, which has been an R&B staple since its pioneering use by the likes of Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions, and Aretha Franklin. While gospel flavors much of this album’s music, grooves like “Slowdance” and “Heaven” feature the call and response technique in its most sanctified form.

Even so, the clearest revelation of Legend’s talent occurs when the tempo slows down and the music emphasizes his voice and piano playing. Performances of ballads like “Again” and “Coming Home,” the latter a poignant letter from war, reflect a sophistication that extends beyond technical skill. Legend sounds suave yet strong, phrasing each lyric with its appropriate sentiment and tone. When he plays the first discreet notes of “Ordinary People,” he elicits a rapturous response from the audience and rightfully so. It’s arguably his finest song to date and one of the most authentic portrayals of relationships set to music in recent memory.

So when John Legend receives “old school” comparisons, it should be regarded as a compliment. Like the influential artists who preceded him, he writes and performs quality music that acknowledges the past while celebrating the present. Live From Philadelphia illustrates just how well he does it.