EmptyGibson Amphitheatre, Universal City
Friday, April 6
When John Legend released "Ordinary People," he didn't just present a fresh take on a classic genre; he also laid out the thematic core of his career's early stages.
While popular music has traditionally traded on the most dramatic parts of relationships -- the blissful early days and the gut-wrenching breakups -- "Ordinary" concentrates on the make-or-break middle when a couple is "past the infatuation phase," vacillating between arguments and recommitment.
In his performance Friday at the Gibson Amphitheatre, Legend revisited the mature stages of romance repeatedly in his material while feeding off songs and styles that are most familiar to a mature audience.
To be sure, Legend exists in the contemporary world. The presence of Kanye West and the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am among the producers on his current album, "Once Again," demonstrates the respect he's given by his peers, and an occasional staccato phrase shows that he's picked up a thing or two from hip-hop.
Still, the bulk of Legend's nearly two-hour set drew from older generations. "Save Room" threaded a new melody on the Classics IV's "Stormy," while "Slow Dance" explored a Temptations groove. He revved up the proceedings with Sly & the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music" (with a surprise appearance by will.i.am), darkened them with the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," offered a verse of Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love" and turned in a lilting version of "Where Is the Love."
The latter provided the evening's highlight, with Legend playing a convincing Donny Hathaway to opening act Corinne Bailey Rae, who put a more girlish spin on the role assumed by Flack in the original.
"Where Is the Love" is fraught with pain, a hopeless love triangle full of broken promises and heartache. The hurt of imperfection and uncertainty similarly dotted "Save Room," "Again" and "Another Again," with Legend ably using his dynamic range to bring an urgent realism to the topic in the slower songs.
Legend also employed light funk and occasional gospel influences to liven up the night, even evincing a bit of Kirk Franklin in some churchy vocal moments. While those more showy pieces had much of the audience on its feet and bobbing, Legend tended to overwhelm them by moving into high gear at the beginning of the songs, stripping him of a chance for any real nuance or expression beyond cheerleading. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not really where he shines.
Rae displayed a similarly classic vibe, drawing on jazz, the blues and traditional soul to craft a warm and vibrant 55-minute set. Her vocals were typically sophisticated -- hopeful but gritty, earthy but optimistic. She stuffed the material with scads of blue notes, tossing in just enough unexpected chords to keep even the most comforting pieces ever so slightly unpredictable. In the end, it was just another way in which maturity ruled the night.