Playing in Africa for the first time, John Legend sustained a feverish momentum and plainly revealed a man capable of keeping a crowd enthralled as easily as any of his (currently) better-known peers.
A day before he played to a sold-out crowd of 5,000 at Johannesburg's Standard Bank Arena, John Legend told a press conference that his eight Grammy nominations had not changed the energetic way he approached his live performances, "except that I will now probably be in a slighter better mood than my previous shows".
Legend, playing in Africa for the first time as the headline act of MTV base's Live! concert, stood true to his words, performing -- and clearly, enjoying -- a lively 15-song set that sustained a feverish momentum and plainly revealed a man capable of keeping a crowd enthralled as easily as any of his (currently) better-known peers.
The fact that Legend's Johannesburg gig came on the eve of a long weekend, marking the start of the Christmas break for many, only added to the flat-out party atmosphere that drenched the Arena. But, the gold sales here (25,000 units) of his debut, "Get Lifted," confirm, this was a crowd of ardent Legend fans, word-perfect on all the songs from the disc that made it into the set.
Recognizing that the crowd was here for the songs off Get Lifted, Legend wasted no time in laying into the album's title track, giving the song a force at which its piano-based studio arrangement only hinted.
The authoritative way in which Legend delivered his opening numbers defined the rest of the night's show. It also gave life to the performer's intention to declare himself a standalone artist, deflecting any notions that he's simply Kanye West's protege. His potent solo versions of the songs off "Get Lifted" that feature collaborators, most especially "I Can Change" (Snoop Dogg), "Number One" (West) and the Grammy-nominated "So High" (Lauryn Hill), were so plump that it was a stretch to remember Legend had not recorded them on his own in the first place.
Yet to be totally at ease with moving around on stage, Legend nonetheless cruised between his grand piano and singing with a mic with a nervy force that had the crowd on its feet. When, during "Used to Love U," he took off his jacket and shirt to reveal a sleeveless vest underneath, the stab at on-stage sexiness felt a little clumsy but still endearing.
Still, as on "Get Lifted," it was the music that dominated the spotlight on the night. The new "Freak Out" was warmly received, and in a country like this, where gospel music remains one of the most strongly supported genres by music fans of all ages, the medley of "Number One/Let's Do It Again" was rousing and, for a few minutes, turned the Arena into a church.
The ecstatic response to Legend's work was repeated when, towards the end of the show, he performed unplugged, on the piano, giving an ethereal beauty to "Again" and the multi-Grammy nominated "Ordinary People". Even the lesser-known cover of the Animals "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," transformed by the performer's keenly felt vocal phrasing, earned strong applause.
In the end, the sold-out crowd who had also come to see Leela James revel in her soul-sista songs, as well as South African support from hip-hop kingpins Skwatta Kamp and diva Lebo Mathosa, were left calling for more. Legend's astonishingly kinetic performance, built around his piano playing, left no one unmoved. In a country where soul music lives in even the most traditional genres, Legend undoubtedly has claimed thousands of hearts.
Here is John Legend's set list:
"Let's Get Lifted"
"She Don't Have To Know"
"Number One"/"Let's Do It Again"
"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"
"Live It Up"
"I Can Change"
"Used to Love U"
"Stay With You"
"Refuge (When It's Cold Outside)"