A Christmas performance can be a tricky thing for an artist. You’ve gotta keep it festive without getting cheesy. You have to tackle some classic songs that have already been sung to death by all of the greats while still putting your own spin on them, or you risk turning your set into holiday karaoke. You need to be timeless, but in a way that distinguishes you from the glut of Christmas music fans are bombarded with before the Thanksgiving turkey’s even cold.
Turns out none of that is a problem when you’ve got an EGOT.
From the moment he first appeared at New York’s Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden via a pre-recorded, black-and-white video intro singing “The Christmas Song,” it was clear that John Legend knows exactly how to toe all those lines and hit the right holiday notes.
Legend has leaned hard into Christmas lately, with his A Legendary Christmas album and tour, performances at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center and a Christmas TV special with his wife, Chrissy Teigen, that featured everything from walk-ons by famous friends to a mac-and-cheese battle.
That variety show feel carried over into his set Monday night thanks to a generous amount of costume changes (who knew one man could rock so many different festive suits?), a tight band—complete with a horn section and three backup singers—and backdrops that read “The Johnny Legend Show” or “Welcome to JL’s Juke Joint” to help set the mood as he grooved through classics like “What Christmas Means to Me,” “Please Come Home for Christmas” and “Merry Christmas, Baby.”
But Legend wasn’t afraid to keep it fresh, either, playing five of A Legendary Christmas‘ six original songs, including the Motown-inspired “Bring Me Love,” the piano ballad “By Christmas Eve” and the New Orleans-style “Merry Merry Christmas,” during which his band marched around the stage in a mini second line while fake snow fell from the rafters.
“I love Christmas music,” he told the crowd before explaining that he always wanted to do a Christmas album because it reminds him of his family’s holiday tradition of singing around the piano all night (after presents and football, of course).
Fans who may have been skeptical about an all-Christmas performance, however, were in for a pleasant surprise, as Legend balanced the show with a healthy amount of his non-holiday material. (In fact, it was a perfect 50/50 split: 11 of the 22 songs he played were Christmas songs.) He encouraged fans to sing along on hits like “All of Me,” “Ordinary People” and “Green Light,” and before bringing a fan up onstage to dance with him on “Slow Dance” as he has on previous tours, he urged the crowd to get romantic.
“If you’re here with someone you love, I want you to tell them you love them,” he said. “And if you’re not here with someone you love, you can tell me you love me. Or look around and see who else is single—my music has been known to be an aphrodisiac.”
That goofy charm, paired with his undeniable voice, is exactly what makes him so perfectly suited for a Christmas revue, and as he left the stage, the black-and-white Legend resurfaced on the video screens to wave and blow the crowd a kiss before “The End?” appeared in an old-timey script. That question mark was there to let the crowd know he’d be coming back out for an encore, but it also felt like the perfect reflection of how well he’s mastered the holiday: Mariah Carey better watch her back, because John Legend’s Christmas career is just beginning.
John Legend: A Legendary Christmas tour setlist:
1. What Christmas Means to Me
2. Silver Bells
3. Bring Me Love
4. A Good Night
5. Tonight (Best You’ll Ever Have)
6. Love Me Now
7. Please Come Home for Christmas
8. By Christmas Eve
9. Where Did My Baby Go
10. Slow Dance
11. Merry Christmas, Baby
12. Christmas Time is Here
13. No Place Like Home
14. Wrap Me Up with Your Love
15. Save Room
16. Like I’m Gonna Lose You
17. Penthouse Floor
18. Ordinary People
19. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
20. Green Light
21. All of Me
22. Merry Merry Christmas