John Legend

By James Doy

Artist:  John Legend

Date / Venue:  Wednesday December 10th, Vector Arena, Auckland

We arrived just as the opening act was starting, Maisey Rika, who delivered a fantastic set of mostly Te Reo originals. Working as a three-piece, with Seth Haapu on keyboards and vocals, and Robert Ruha on guitar and vocals, their performance had a hugely professional polish, but still managed to retain the feel of a backyard sing-along. Some beautiful vocal harmonies underscored Maisey's powerful and agile vocals, and the set culminated in a crowd pleasing mash-up of several popular NZ hits, voted for on their Facebook page - from 'See What Love Can Do' to 'What's the Time Mr Wolf'. The highlight for me was when Seth Haapu took the spotlight for 'Lost In My Youth', a song that deserves international attention.

The cavernous Vector Arena was configured in one of its more intimate settings, the reduction curtains intruding a fair way down the tiered seating, and the stage placed forward enough to reduce the available seating by another 50%. Even with these compensations in place, there were large stretches of empty floor at the back of the flat seated section around the sound and lighting desks. It seems that the massive success of 'All Of You', already a lock for every wedding playlist, hasn't quite broken Legend into the arena filling category.

With a minimum of disruption, the stage layout was quickly refigured to bring the grand piano to the fore, and a fabulous string quartet took the stage, providing an overture for John Legend to enter. The band were fantastic - Legend was aiming for "intimate, raw and unplugged" for this tour, and they delivered. A small line up, Legend himself on piano, with drums, guitar, the string quartet, and a bass player who switched between electric and stand-up as the song demanded, produced a full, clear, but not over-amplified sound - it's great to hear that is possible at Vector. Live strings make such a difference, and they were cleverly used for much of the night, a real distinguishing feature.

Opening with 'Made To Love' from his new album, it was immediately apparent that there's no studio trickery involved with Legend's voice - he can seriously sing. He then moved on to promising Auckland he'd be "The Best You Ever Had" - I'm sure he says that to all the cities, but we believed him all the same. The audience immediately warmed up - loved the way he ironically over-riffed every time he sang "I don't mean to brag". It was a small audience for the venue, but they were extremely responsive, and it certainly didn't feel empty once things were underway.

Legend is in an interesting position for an artist - he's been around for a long time now, his first solo album was released ten years ago, and he was providing vocals and piano for other acts long before that. In terms of international success though, he's really known for two songs, 'Ordinary People' and 'All Of Me', which at the moment bookend his solo career. His natural stage persona is cool and confident, almost cocky at times, but there were times when a little insecurity showed through the bombast. At one point he sat alone at the piano, delivering a self-deprecating monologue about all the hits he's been involved with, from Kanye West,to Alicia Keys, Jay Z, and teasing the audience with the strident piano introduction to 'Everything Is Everything' by Lauryn Hill but not following through with the song. This was fascinating, but did add to one of my overriding impressions of the night - there was a tinge of Las Vegas cabaret to the proceedings - he brought the lights up on the audience just a little too often!

Two of the best received songs of the night were covers - Michael Jackson's 'Rock With You', and a stunning gospel rendition of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', which brought out almost every cellphone torch in the place, the 21st century answer to the cigarette lighter. There are plenty of good songs in Legend's own repertoire though, 'Green Light' bringing the audience to its feet with only a little prompting from the stage. His voice is a genuine gift, effortless, powerful, and capable of some crazy riffing - but he always showed tasteful restraint.

The encore was obvious - it had to be 'All Of You' - and he delivered, returning alone to the stage, the whole arena singing along with this instant new standard, which got the biggest reaction of the night. Then time for a quick selfie with the crowd, and he left to a standing ovation.