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John Legend plays to the lover in all of us

Deborah Sengupta

Editor’s note: This article was originally published July 23, 2014

At exactly 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday a pair of warm spotlights went up on a string quartet stationed at the side of the stage at the Cedar Park Center spinning gorgeous textural sound. Moments later a wild scream ripped through the audience as modern R&B titan John Legend sauntered onto the stage. Wearing a finely tailored suit and an open collared white button down shirt, Legend warmly greeted the near capacity crowd, took a seat at the grand piano placed in the center of the stage and eased into a languid and lovely rendition of “Made to Love” off his 2013 release “Love in the Future.” The song set the tone for an evening that found Legend effortlessly meandering back and forth through his extensive catalog of timeless love songs, backed by the strings, a muted drum kit and sensitively rendered electric guitar.

“I wanted to strip everything down and keep it pretty simple. Take it back to the beginning,” he explained early on seguing into the title track to his first album “Get Lifted.” As such, the piano, and Legend’s incredible expressive use of it, was the focal point of the show. Crumpled, silks illuminated by colored lights were draped from the front to the back of the stage which was set sparsely with giant light cans that gave the effect of an old movie set and small electric candles in wire cages that evoked an intimate piano bar. Legend’s speaking voice was somewhat hoarse but save a few tiny scuffs on his silky falsetto it did nothing to diminish his power as a vocalist.

A warm and charismatic performer, Legend was charming and funny recounting his humble beginnings as “Kanye West’s sidekick” and sharing a hilarious story about one of his grandmothers — her middle name is Maxine and she was thrilled when she heard Legend’s song by the same name, delightedly assuming it was a tribute. She clearly didn’t listen to the lyrics detailing “Maxine’s” infidelity, Legend explained. “Low down dirty, Maxine,” he said wryly.

One of the most touching moments of the show was a tribute to his other grandmother. She was the woman who taught him to play gospel piano, the organist in the Pentecostal church where Legend was raised (his grandfather was the pastor, his mother the choir director and his father played drums in the band). “One of my biggest regrets is that she passed away before she got to see any of this happen,” he said, as an introduction to a heartbreaking cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”

Legend also covered Beatles’ “Something,” and with his golden voice backed by the strings the effect was sublime, but the meat of the show came from Legend’s own formidable songbook. The fact that he’s one of our generation’s greatest love balladeers was reflected in the audience, diverse in age and ethnicity but made up almost entirely of couples. “I know it’s date night tonight at the John Legend show” he joked.

Some of the strongest moments, both in terms of crowd response and sheer beauty came from his earliest hits. The opening strains to “Ordinary People” provoked screams of delight and a reimagined orchestral rock version of “Cloud Nine” with strings, guitar squeals and starburst lighting provided so much gorgeous ambience it was almost possible to forget for a moment that we were inside a hockey arena.

Shortly before 10 p.m. Legend left the stage to raucous cheers. He returned a few moments later asking for permission to play one more song. Sitting alone at the piano he took the show out with an honest and emotional version of the ubiquitous hit “All of Me” creating poignant memories for the hundreds of Central Texas couples who held each other close and sang along with all their hearts.