Two qualities characterize John Legend more than any other. There’s his earnestness, the seemingly unabashed drive to spread and be joy, untempered by irony or darkness. And there’s his professionalism, ensuring that there are no wrinkles, hiccups, or surprises to get in his way. He brought both to a sold-out Orpheum on Sunday, and the combination of the two resulted in a concert that hit a level of unperturbed crowd-pleasing and rarely budged.
That made for a neatly efficient performance but also one that remained maddeningly static. Legend’s set was overwhelmingly built on songs of devotion, with precious little shift in perspective to what happens when devotion wavers or isn’t reciprocated or becomes complicated. (That made the failed romance of “Used To Love U” stand out despite being cut from the same sonic cloth as the rest of his material.) So many songs presented a happily married man being happily married that even in his bedroom jams, he seemed more like a wingman there to shepherd someone else’s seduction, not his own.
The limited topical range was matched by Legend’s own dynamic range. His tremulous, full-throated Donny Hathaway warble always kept him pitched at a level of polite declamation, whether solo at his piano for “All Of Me” or backed by the splashy ‘70s soul of “Ooh Laa,” complete with horns, backup singers, and a drum burst that seemed to erupt every three seconds. He seemed imperturbable, either by bad vibes or good, expressing a chill satisfaction at all times that carried over into a gentle, unthreatening hip sway. All of it added to the feel of a 1970s variety show, especially when he hammered out a flowery piano figure for a seemingly interminable 10 minutes as he recounted his journey toward becoming a superstar, complete with inspirational platitudes.
A few songs offered a glimpse of a more exciting Legend. He sang “U Move, I Move” as a duet with backup singer Natalie Imani, bringing a focus to his performance that made him more locked-in and direct than usual. All three backups — Imani, Shenice Johnson, and Karyn Williams — elevated “Conversations In The Dark” almost without him, just with some well-placed oohs and a firm, guiding refrain of “I won’t break your heart.” And even though it seemed like more of his usual, something about the closing “Wild” — maybe the keyboard bass drone running through it, or the big, deliberate tom thwacks — rippled with a tension that Legend spent the rest of his performance studiously avoiding.
Flanked solely by two singer/dancers, opener Kirby alternated cooing seductions with take-no-guff empowerment R&B that could have benefited from a bigger stage, a live band, and a less mannered vocal that didn’t result in clear pronunciations like “Blesh my shoul.”
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc
With Kirby. At the Orpheum Theatre, Sunday