- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2005

On paper, the pairing of John Legend and Joss Stone at Wolf Trap on Wednesday night seemed like a heavenly match.

Mr. Legend is a black neo-soul singer.

Miss Stone, on her albums “The Soul Sessions” and “Mind, Body & Soul,” sounds like a black neo-soul singer.

Close enough?

Depends on how highly you value the real thing, baby.

Miss Stone, an 18-year-old Brit who was primed to become a contender among the Britneys and Christinas before pivoting into the Miami soul scene, is a fine singer. At this point in her fledgling career, though, she’s merely tracing the outlines of her mentor, singer Betty Wright, and her heroine, Aretha Franklin. That will change.

For the time being, however, Miss Stone is no more worthy a princess of soul than, say, Fantasia Barrino.

The problem Wednesday was that, as entertainer No. 2, she was supposed to tear off a roof that Mr. Legend had already set on fire. That would have been tough for any performer to do, let alone one who is still, bless her heart, a giggly teenage girl.

Miss Stone, with her flowing gold locks and gypsy skirt, seemed so full of nervous energy that she didn’t quite know how to channel. Her set felt rushed (indeed, it was shorter than Mr. Legend’s 90 minutes). An expected duet with Mr. Legend never materialized.

Neither on covers of Harlan Howard’s “The Chokin’ Kind” and the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl” (renamed and funked-up as “Fell in Love With a Boy”) nor on quasi-originals such as “Less Is More” and “Jet Lag” did Miss Stone cut a distinct figure. With all her my-face-is-on-fire gesticulating, it’s like she got lost miming personas of the past.

The Dusty Springfieldian “Right to Be Wrong” is the tastiest thing on the radio right now, but, in concert, Miss Stone and her rock-the-casino band reduced it to a bland porridge. The dance groove “Don’t Cha Wanna Ride” was porridge to begin with.

Probably because he honed his chops behind the scenes for half a decade before debuting as a solo act last year — you can still buy a pair of live CDs from an ex-choir director formerly known as John Stephens — Mr. Legend performed what should have been the headlining set.

When the summer-suited Mr. Legend got up from his grand piano to sing songs such as “Used to Love U” freestyle, the ladies in the house were Pavlovian bump-and-grinders. Alone on the keys for “Ordinary People,” Mr. Legend and his booming, acrobatic baritone were back in church.

In one way, Miss Stone was the more endearing of the two performers. She may be green, but she’s humble (“I hope you like it” was how she introduced most songs). Mr. Legend, on the other hand, has an ego the size of his home state of Ohio. The stage surname isn’t enough; Mr. Legend plays in front of a backdrop that looks like a giant, golden stamp with his image imprinted on it, making it look more like a dictator’s icon than a stage prop.

Then there was the ego in miniature, the smugness. Mr. Legend made a point of reminding the audience of some of his high-profile studio work. He played snippets of Slum Village’s “Selfish,” Jay-Z’s “Encore” and Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name,” congratulating himself each time, saying, “That was me.”

This is a bit rich coming from a guy who, talented as he is, retreads “Let’s Get It On” wah-wah guitar licks and sub-R. Kelly altitude-metaphor ballads (“I Believe I Can Fly” is, in Mr. Legend’s hands, called “So High”).

Please, all you neo-soul singers — don’t become infected with the personality-cult virus. Leave that to the rappers.

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