21 Jul 2009: Ravinia Festival Highland Park, IL
It doesn’t always happen this way. But it did this time. John Legend’s musical M.O. for romance and intimacy—by blending together soul, hip hop and reggae—mirrored the vibe at Ravinia, an equally intimate outdoor venue on Chicago’s North Shore. Walking toward my seat in the pavilion, I winded through the lawn area where fans faces were lit by tiny candles that flickered on portable picnic tables as they relaxed in lawn chairs, sipped wine and nibbled on finger food. It was only a few weeks since the King of Pop died, so rightfully, his hits boomed from the PA blanketing the crowd in a mix of tribute, mourning and reminiscence. The venue buzzed with anticipation waiting for Legend to begin the wooing and his second of two sold out shows.
Catching fans by surprise, Legend started the show at the top of the pavilion with a dramatic stroll unfurling Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” A fitting beginning that pointed fans right to the heart of his inspirations seeing as his real last name is Stephens and one of Marley’s most treasured albums is Legend. Clad in all black jeans and dress shirt, Legend moved down the aisle toward the stage. Female fans screamed and reached for him. He smiled and touched the hands of a few lucky fans along the way without missing a note, a beat or emotional impact of “Redemption Song.” He’s clearly mastered the art of the dramatic entry, but still, it all seemed so spontaneous, like he was doing it for the first time.
The moment he hit the stage, both the decibel and pheromone levels in the pavilion streaked to peaks as a whirlwind of catcalls and sensual surges shot like electricity through the crowd. But this was by no means the show’s emotional peak. Legend clearly knows exactly what to do to woo a crowd and how to take us to higher ground.
Now, all of this is amazing to me because while I’m taking in this sensual and soulful spectacle, I’m also thinking of Legend’s journey as a musician and the success he’s had over the last several years. He’s come a long way since he first began playing the piano at age 4 and directing his church choir in his teens back in his hometown of Springfield, Ohio. After high school, he attended the University of Philadelphia and eventually rose up in the Philadelphia music scene, which led to getting signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. music label that released his debut Get Lifted in 2004 which sold 3 million copies.
On record or live, Legend succeeds in mixing reggae, church spirituals and love ballads into an irresistible neo-soul tapestry woven through with sensuality, spirituality and sexuality. On record it’s easier to pick out when he’s singing about his unashamed passion for female relationships. But live the shear emotional intensity of the performance makes it harder to tell where the Saturday night love affair ends and the Sunday morning church service begins. In concert, they almost seem one in the same.
Within a few songs, Legend was sweaty and lathered up, and with a full backing band, he traversed through each of his three albums unfurling hits “Heaven”, “Satisfaction” and “Used to Love U” that all blossomed like amplified flowers in the hearts of the fans. “Let’s Get Lifted” soared high on gorgeous swells as three backup singers pushed Legend’s sensual croon to climax. And in beautiful contrast, the soft and quiet moments during “Quickly” felt like you were lying on a pillow next to Legend as he gently whispered “that the sky’s falling.”
Enhanced by Ravinia’s pristine acoustics, the songs seemed to grow even more steamy, soulful, and sensual with each passing verse. Beads of perspiration fell from Legend’s brow and his black t-shirt was nearly soaked through. Female fans around me let out varying levels of eardrum-piercing screams expressing their deep adoration.
The neo-soul train hurled onward into the revved-up rhythms of “Green Light.” Legend sang “I’m ready to go,” with one hand on the mic and the other slowly unbuttoning his vested shirt. The song’s video, featuring OutKast’s Andre 3000, flashed on the giant back-dropped video screen. He switched hands again, one tickling the ivories on his Baby Grand and lifting the other up to touch the sky. Song for song, Evolver isn’t my favorite Legend album, but putting on a show like this, made the songs sound a whole lot better than on record.
After a brief change to an all-white suit and black tie, Legend reappeared for an encore. Recalling his church choir-leading days, he led the crowd in a harmonious sing-along of the endearing and comforting “Ordinary People.” From those standing in the packed pavilion to the loungers and wine sippers in the grassy knoll, all of Ravinia synced together as the maestro led the show to its end.
Tiny rain drops began to fall. But it was hard to tell whether my skin was moist from the sky’s natural release, or if I was feeling the result of 17,000 John Legend fans getting their sticky and sweaty groove on and releasing their own pheromones into the atmosphere on a steamy summer night.