As a sold-out crowd at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts found out on Thursday, there may be no better time to catch John Legend in concert than right now.
Legend (born John Roger Stephens in Springfield, Ohio, in 1978), a nine-time Grammy award winner, has always been known for his songwriting and collaborations, but he is just coming into his own as a performer.
After nearly 10 years in the music business, the 35-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 for the first time in May with “All of Me,” an across-the-board smash which also hit No. 1 on the Adult R&B, Pop Songs, Adult Pop Songs, and Rhythmic Songs charts. The song that knocked “Happy” by Pharrell Williams out of the top spot after 10 weeks has sold over 3.5 million copies and has been streamed over 100 million times – and that’s just on Spotify.
He currently is in the midst of his “All of Me” tour, a close-up-and-personal, stripped-down showcase of his best songs in mostly chronological order that has been selling out all over the country, so it’s probably the last time to see him in intimate spaces like the Kirby Center as arenas are surely right around the corner.
The June 5 show in Wilkes-Barre began with a tuxedo-clad Legend taking his place at a grand piano through a puff of smoke, moving right into “Made to Love” from his most recent album, 2013’s “Love in the Future,” followed by “Tonight (Best You Ever Had)” from the “Think Like a Man” soundtrack.
“I don’t want to brag, but I’ll be the best you ever had,” he sang on the latter, before coyly adding, “I don’t want to brag, Wilkes-Barre, or maybe I do.
“It’s good to be back in Northeast Pennsylvania,” he said to wild cheers, alluding to his nine-year stint as music and choir director at a Scranton church beginning in 1995. “It’s been a long time.”
Tales of his detours after college, including a stop as a management consultant making PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets (“Very sexy work,” he said), included talk of his time in Scranton.
“One of my other detours was in Scranton, Pennsylvania – I used to play at a little church called Bethel AME, but my dream was always to be where I am today.”
Exquisitely backed by a string quartet and a single guitarist, Legend then took the crowd on a chronological tour of his four albums, starting with his debut single “Used to Love U,” which he said he first played onstage with his longtime collaborator Kanye West in 2004 while opening for Usher.
“I used to sing the hooks for his songs and he let me do one of my own,” he noted.
Early highlights included “This Time” (from 2008’s “Evolver”) by request, plus “Maxine,” “Again,” and “Save Room,” all from 2006’s “Once Again.” A slow, smooth reworking of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” was very well received, as were the singer/songwriter’s own “Green Light,” “Good Morning,” and “Everybody Knows.”
A fantastic arrangement of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” dedicated to the memory of his grandmother who taught him how to play gospel piano, brought the audience to its feet. New single “You & I (Nobody in the World)” sounds like another surefire smash, and the crowd enthusiastically received “Who Do We Think We Are,” the most recent record’s first single featuring Rick Ross.
Legend headed for the finish line with “Caught Up” before going back in time for “So High,” his 2005 collaboration with Lauryn Hill. His Grammy-winning first hit “Ordinary People” ended the set proper to another standing ovation.
Then, in a most fitting finale, the smooth-voiced balladeer sang “All of Me” for his encore, leaving the sold-out crowd of 1,802 enthralled and smiling as it made its way to the exits.