By BRUCE DENNILL
John Legend: Darkness & Light Tour / 5 November 2017 / TicketPro Dome, Randburg, Johannesburg
Two things can be guaranteed at a John Legend concert, whatever material he happens to be promoting at the time, are his top-level musicianship and a sauveness that’s only matched in contemporary music by Bruno Mars and perhaps Michael Buble. What he has is not arrogance, though it’s not very far from it. It’s pure, undistilled confidence in his abilities, his songs and the way he presents them.
And it’s completely reasonable, given the control he has over his musical faculties. When he’s at the piano, he never looks at the keys – because he doesn’t need to; his fingers know the keyboard intimately. And when he sings, in his unmistakeably rich, distinctive voice, he exhibits phenomenal control, and does so with apparent effortlessness.
Then to the set-up he has on stage, a nod to the classic soul music that informs his work as much as the melodies and delivery themselves. There’s an 11-piece band: drummer, percussionist, guitarist, bassist and keyboard player, and then a horn trio and three gorgeous, elegant backing vocalists. Everyone is extraordinarily well-drilled, hitting all their musical marks – as you’d expect – but also playing their part in a greater choreography, stretched throughout the whole of the show, that provides glossy, punchy support for the suit- or tuxedo-clad Legend, who struts across the front of the stage or moves to the rear to sit at his Yamaha grand when the music requires it.
Slick as it all is, this Darkness & Light show is not quite the sum of its parts. When the hits arrive in different parts of the set – Save Room, Green Light, All Of Me and others – the energy in the rest of the venue matches the expertise on stage, but there are occasional lags in emotional vigour when newer tracks, or compositions that never made it to radio and are only well-known to fans who have every album, fill as sustained part of the set. In these areas, it’s easy to intellectually appreciate what Legend and his colleagues are doing, with his backing vocalists, members of the horn section ad the guitarists enjoying short segments in the solo spotlight.
When he chats to his audience, Legend exhibits a comfort with his celebrity (as opposed to artistic) status that’s more refreshing than annoying – when the latter is what might be expected. He speaks of his model wife Chrissy Teigen and daughter Luna with pride and obvious affection, and the song Right By You, which he wrote for his daughter, is one of the highlights of the concert, intricate but accessible, recalling solo Paul McCartney.
In the end, it’s difficult to accurately define the way this concert succeeds (though succeed it does). Legend has undeniable soul, and when he connects it’s impossible not to feel moved. But there are gaps in that continnum, and it’s possible to leave at the end of the night being merely impressed rather than changed.