- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 29, 2007

In the summer of 2005, a former church choir director and session musician originally from Ohio named John Legend opened for English singer Joss Stone (then a giggly 18-year-old) on a double bill at Wolf Trap. Mr. Legend didn’t need to do much to prove he was the superior musician and a major talent on the rise — one who, within months, would walk away with the best new artist Grammy for his 2004 debut, “Get Lifted.”

On Saturday night at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., he delivered a repeat performance for Washingtonians in terms of quality, but it was as if everything had been injected with a growth hormone.

“This is the biggest show of the tour, the biggest crowd of the tour,” he told the audience several songs in, as if to explain why he needed 12 fellow musicians including three back-up singers complete with “Solid Gold”-esque choreography onstage operating at levels nearing the mythical “11.”

It was loud, so loud in some respects that the evening resembled a rock concert as opposed to a performance by a neo-soul singer with a piano.

In this high-decibel environment, a tune like the hip-hop-tinged “Heaven” (a Grammy-winning performance off last year’s “Once Again”) lost the delicate balance of sweet soul and broken, staccato beats as well as the blend of yesterday and today that made him famous. Instead, it became a tidal wave of R&B; sound that probably succeeded in washing clean back to the people huddled in the deepest recesses of the lawn, an important objective in some respects, but one that swept away some of the better, more dynamic aspects of this and other tunes.

Around the show’s halfway point, however, the seas parted a bit and he and the band settled into a calmer state that made it much easier to appreciate (and hear) his fine vocal and piano skills.

Diverse tunes such as “Please Baby Don’t” (a fun bossa nova ditty from Sergio Mendes’ recent “Timeless” disc); a fantastic rendition of the Donny Hathaway/Roberta Flack duet “Where is the Love” with opening act Corinne Bailey Rae; and the gospel-fueled, soul clap-inducing “I Can Change” proved the artist’s versatility and also illustrated why most demographics were represented in the eclectic crowd.

Girls who looked like the rap artist Eve leaped to their feet when the singer invited one lucky woman onstage for “Slow Dance;” North Face fleece-wearers threw their hands in the air for a remix of “P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care);” and gray-haired couples applauded loudly for the Jeff Buckley-esque “Show Me.” While not seated at his piano bench, the singer worked the crowd as if he were walking a runway, doing his best approximation of Frank Sinatra’s confident, gravelly croon, Smokey Robinson’s charms and even Marvin Gaye’s poignancy (in “Once Again’s” “Coming Home,” which felt infinitely less trite than it did on the album).

Miss Rae, a former indie rocker, also strove for volume this go-around, which made for a nice contrast to her intimate 2006 Birchmere appearance. She interspersed favorites from her eponymous debut with a few covers and some fresh tracks, earning a standing ovation at the close of her under-an-hour set. While John Legend’s star may be hard to eclipse, she looked “Just Like” one, too.

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