John Legend at the Greek Theater

The Minister's rebellious daughter and I have been acquainted for seventeen years now, having first met when I served her a cup of coffee during her first year in college. She's changed, as have I, but when you know someone that long it is often difficult to take in the complete picture of the present- one is left with impressions delivered into compartments created in the past . That past always feels present as a space and time we both occupy and yet obviously no longer do. About a year ago we became "theater companions" to take advantage of one of the half-dozen things we have in common after all these years. There may be more, but of these I am certain- the rest remain nebulous as she has always been a creature whose design and internal workings were somewhat unfathomable to me and remain so to this day.

Nevertheless, she's smart, funny, likes bourbon and I like spending time in her company, so when she asked me at the last minute if I would take the place of someone else and accompany her to see John Legend at the Greek I said yes, even though my knowledge of his music is thin and I can't say I ever thought of remedying that.

The Minister's rebellious daughter and I descended the stairs and entered a crowded BART platform to make our way across the bay to the Berkeley campus. The weather was perfect for a concert at one of the few decent outdoor venues in the Bay Area. Ascending the stairs on the other side, we shared a pizza and a salad at Jupiter, which was as crowded as the BART station, a situation made even less pleasant by a waitress who possessed no skills for the job and an over amplified bluegrass band performing on the courtyard. The restaurant appeared full top-to bottom with with people eager to make various impressions on their companions- low-cut dresses, too-loud repartee, snuggles and the unique, deliberate anti-ostentation found nowhere else but in Berkeley.

Sunday night presented a perfect, warm summer sky. We missed the opener, Legend's brother Vaughn Anthony, but made it into the bowl as Arie started her set. Arie delivered a set of acoustic-oriented soul that took more inspiration from Odetta Holmes than Stevie Wonder, though Arie mentioned Stevie more than once as an influence and inspiration. Her voice is beautiful, but the set was marred by a poor sound mix even though we sat near the mixing board. Arie has good enough material that she doesn't need to implore the audience to "listen to the words" of her songs, which made her come across as an artist with less confidence in her work than she should at this point. Besides, I don't care to be told how to watch or listen to a performance. It's the performer's job to make me want to know what those words are because the song is compelling enough to pay attention to them.

Performing Sade's "Pearls" and Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" along with most of her better known songs including "I Am Not my Hair," her set was enthusiastically received by the audience, including the older, happy "we love India because of that song where she says she doesn't shave her legs and neither do we" female couple seated to our immediate right.

During the set she played the guitar, flute and keyboards and turned a simple sheet and a well-placed fan into an arresting, dramatic prop. This was Arie's last gig on the Legend tour, and at the end of the set she brought her entire road crew onto the stage to introduce and thank them. Arie's mother was part of this group, and she told the crowd India would be signing stuff like 40$ T-shirts after the show and that her daughter was a genius. I can't vouch for that one way or the other, but I will say India. Arie's mother was the most beautiful woman on the stage for the entire night (and all three of Legend's back-up singers are drop-dead-gorgeous). Who knew?

After her set I went to have a cigarette and was accosted by two young women in their twenties who took deep interest in my relationship with the Minister's daughter, though she was getting another round of beers and was nowhere to be seen. Justine and Lorelei, two young women recently drawn to the big city from Eureka to work as au pairs or nannies or some other such job, providing them with just enough money and easy access to get them into plenty of fun, the kind they'll never share with the eventual father of their children, whom they'll probably meet at the Abbey Tavern or Little Shamrock. Lorelei claimed she had a boyfriend in Pennsylvania and asked me if I liked skinny women- the connecting thread between the statement and the question eluded me at the moment, but I answered in the negative. Later on, during Legend's set, I looked down and noticed activity the boyfriend in Pennsylvania would likely find very disheartening. At the time, Legend was singing a song admonishing lovers to behave themselves. I do love small ironies like that- they're little serendipitous moments reminding us the devil likes to have fun with humans- we're such easy prey. There was an invitation extended to me to attend a barbecue for the following day which was politely accepted and not followed up on.

John Legend began his set from the middle of the audience with an acapella version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." It was quite a bit of showmanship, yet came across as a sincere and generous entrance that pretty much put the audience in the palm of his hand for the entire set. Legend inserted a couple of self-aggrandizing moments he didn't need, referring to himself or his music in the third person- as if he was James Brown or something. This only reminded the audience (or at least me) that he's no James Brown, nor one of the few people who can, whether sincerely or ironically, call themselves out in a performance like that. He's also not not as natural a performer as his stature would indicate.

However, the man does have stage presence and he can work a crowd. But his show has a number of weird distractions- the choreography of the back-up singers, who could be called "The Tasties," was trite, too fast, as if they were performing their synchronized moves to a track that was going twice as fast as that being played by the band. Estelle showed up for a smoking duet of "No Other Love" that put the Tasties to shame, and Arie and Vaughn both returned to share the stage with Legend during the set. The Vaughn number unfortunately didn't make me regret missing his act.

Legend also had a full screen behind him, projecting mod graphics or videos of the songs being played. These images often detracted from the the performance, especially during "Green Light," featuring Andre 3000 and a host of beautiful people dancing and having a good time at a party the audience was never going to attend, much less be invited to in real-life. It totally took the attention off the band onto Andre's grinning, larger than life face. Weird too, was the mutated Rolling Stones iconography during "Satisfaction" that not only stole the lips and tongue image, but also the Steel Wheels album artwork. Also distracting was a montage juxtaposing Legend (filmed to make Legend look as much like Marvin Gaye as possible) cavorting with a beautiful Latin woman with two people who were ostensibly a younger version of this couple, but the couple looked like Alexandre Rodrigues and Alice Braga from the film City of God and I kept thinking to myself when is Lil Ze' going to show up and spoil all this fun? And yes, there were also images of Michael Jackson on the screen during one number that segued into "Remember the Time." To me it was just weird- and a reminder that Legend is never going to be MJ. The pictures of MJ were all pre total-whiteface, scary mug-shot era- back when most of us all loved him, regardless of the whole Elephant Man and Bubbles the chimp shenanigans.

Legend's strong points rest in his strong singing and songwriting abilities. To his credit he completely eschews the bleating, whiny nasal tone that has come to dominate R&B since Boys II Men burst onto the scene in the late eighties. Planting his feet firmly in the Philadelphia sound of the seventies, Legend's work looks back to when soul singers actually sang songs and fronted bands rather whined over the top of slick, over-produced beats. But here's the rub: as a performer, Legend doesn't measure up to the greats of the earlier eras and he's not a gifted enough performer to take soul and R&B to a new place.

His seven piece band is tight (especially the guitar player), but the band rocks more than it grooves. His horn section can whip out Horny Horns sound-alike riffs, but they can't touch the Mar-Keys for just being in the groove, and they should ditch the attempts at choreography- it just doesn't work. Legend sounds like a singer whose worked is only modeled on his predecessors- Otis Redding, Frankie Beverly, Teddy Pendergrass and of course Marvin, but it sounds like he's not too familiar with where their music came from - gospel and the blues. Strangley for one of the genre's leaders, Legend's neo-soul is curiously lacking heart. At moments, his music actually reminded me more of Bruce Hornsby's than of Marvin's- and while that's not necessarily a knock, that most definitely ain't a groove.

The Minister's daughter and I had bourbons after the show and discovered that BART's promise to run 24/7 while the Bay Bridge was closed was as much a fiction as the promise Lorelei made to the man in Pennsylvania. Thankfully we caught the last train back to the city, finishing off the night at Lefty's- a place whose sad decline merits its own post, which I shall indeed one day write.