John Legend at The Woodlands, 7/23/2014
Photos by Violeta Alvarez
John Legend Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion July 23, 2014
As the crowd's applause subsided following Wednesday evening's first song, "Made to Love," John Legend leaned down toward the crowd from the his piano bench onstage at the Woodlands Pavilion. He had a coy, even mischievous look about him, as if he was about to divulge a secret.
"Houston," he whispered into the microphone, "I want to be the best you ever had."
Legend then raised a single eyebrow and smirked as the crowd resumed its cheering.
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"I don't want to brag," Legend sang, "but tonight, I'll be the best you ever had."
Does it really constitute vanity if it's true?
Wearing a white suit jacket over a black T-shirt and black pants, the Ohio native remained seated for most of his performance. Audience members, meanwhile, rose to their feet in between, and oftentimes during just about every song.
Accompanied by a cello, three violas and an upright bass, the evening was more akin to an evening at the theater than a typical Pavilion concert. Bongos, a drum set, a guitar and a bass made occasional appearances, but the crowd's shared attention was focused on Legend, as his vocals and proficiency on the piano dominating the evening.
"I stripped the show down and made it a lot simpler," Legend said of his performance. "Because I wanted it to be just us...to get back to the beginning."
He supplemented his set list with anecdotes, regaling the crowd with stories of his past and displaying a self-deprecating humor when addressing the trials he faced during his ascent to stardom.
"My dream was always to be exactly where I am right now," Legend said of his move to New York City in 2000. "But sometimes your dreams take a few detours along the way."
His detour was as a management consultant.
"PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets," he said, adding with a whisper, "It was very sexy work."
But at night, Legend would visit the studio and work on his music, and he even managed to book a few shows around town.
"One of my very first gigs was at a place called The Living Room," he said. "There were about five people there, and two of them were bartenders."
While working as a consultant, Legend found himself performing alongside a number of renowned musicians, though the public still had no idea who he was.
He played piano on Lauryn Hill's "Everything is Everything" as well as on Slum Village's "Selfish," and he sang on Jay Z's "Encore" and in the background of Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name." Wednesday evening, he whetted fans' appetites with snippets from each track.
This all happened before he even had a record deal.
Story continues on the next page.
Legend eventually signed with Kanye West's production company and subsequently went on tour with the self-proclaimed voice of our generation. He opened for Usher as West's sidekick, playing piano and singing the hooks.
West allowed Legend to perform one of his own songs every evening, and it was the first single off 2004's Get Lifted, "Used to Love U."
"I would try to get the crowd to sing along, but no one knew the song quite yet," Legend remembered with a laugh. "Now I'm hoping you all remember it ten years later."
And remember, the crowd did. Chanting along to the ah-la-laa-laaaas, Legend coaxed the crowd into assisting him, generating a sound akin to a church choir.
Legend's only wish, he told the crowd, was that his grandmother had lived long enough to see his musical accomplishments. Legend studied music under the tutelage of his grandmother, who played the organ at the church where his grandfather resided as a pastor. She taught him gospel, and that soulfulness has helped him achieve much of his current success.
"When you hear me play now, you're hearing a lot of my grandmother," Legend said before dedicating a rendition of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge over Troubled Water" to her memory.
"Sail on, silver girl/ Sail on by," he sang. "Your time has come to shine/ All your dreams are on the way."
Being of a religious background, surely Legend believes that his grandmother is watching over him with an attentive eye, smiling somewhere in the crowd alongside his throng of adoring fans, who are absorbing the very art she helped him craft.
Personal Bias: It took way too long for this guy to finally get his big break, but it's finally here. I've never been so vicariously happy for a stranger.
Overheard as the Guitarist Walked Onstage: "It's John Stamos!"
Random Notebook Dump: Flash photography of the big screen from 20 rows back doesn't make good pictures, but it does make the corner of my eyes hurt.
Made to Love Tonight (Best You Ever Had) Get Lifted Again Used to Love U Something (Beatles cover) Maxine Ordinary People Save Room Everybody Knows Good Morning Green Light Rock With You (Michael Jackson cover) Who Do We Think We Are? Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel cover) You and I Caught up So High
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