Of all the points in his career that John Legend could have toured concert halls with a stripped-bare acoustic setup, 2014 seems the least likely.
The singer-songwriter’s most recent LP, last year’s “Love in the Future,” is Legend’s most electronic, experimental record to date. Co-produced by Kanye West, it uses laptop noise to show how relationships break down and rebuild a person. Onstage, Legend usually embodies restraint and composure, but this record is about love making you crazy. If there was ever a time to cut loose and get weird on tour, this was it.
So maybe playing those songs as chamber-music ballads was the most contrarian thing he could do. On Wednesday night at Disney Hall, Legend returned to his piano-bar roots in a career-spanning set with barely any accompaniment. It was a modest rebuttal to contemporary R&B’s turn toward the synthetic and the nihilistic.
Legend’s instrumental prowess and collar-loosening charisma have always been his foremost charms. There’s probably no better venue for him to showcase both than Disney Hall, which brought out the intricacies of his playing and gave fans an up-close view of his talents. Even though he brought a string quartet and occasional classical guitarist onstage, Legend didn’t take the formal setting too seriously, and neither did his fans (when else has anyone in a Disney Hall crowd yelled inquiries about the performer’s supermodel wife?).
Legend has one album -- 2010’s “Wake Up!” with the Roots -- whose overt debts to civil rights-era soul might have been a natural fit in such a high-minded room. But Wednesday’s set was all about the martini-lounge seduction games that drive his best songs.
After a brief string intro, Legend emerged silhouetted in red light to play a spare take on “Made to Love.” But he set the night’s timbre with “Tonight (Best You Ever Had),” a silly and sexy bedroom boast. Legend sang lyrics like “I’ll hit you with the best stroke, freestyle or the breast stroke” with a giant wink, and his ivory-tickling good spirits made that goofy come-on feel almost deserved. “I feel bad singing [profanity] at Disney Hall, this place is so classy,” he said to laughs from the crowd. But that’s exactly what they came for -- a little randiness in all that formality.
Legend kept that rakish mood all night. He worked the crowd for vocal accompaniment on his electro hit “Green Light,” whose finely honed pop writing stood up well in this new context (he got chuckles when he hit the lyric “Do I have a girlfriend? Technically, no…”). Older tunes, like bossa nova-sassy “Maxine” and “Used to Love U,” were clearly written in a format like this -- just Legend and his instrument, a musician at work. They translated easily and proved that Legend, like his peer Alicia Keys, makes pop-inclined choices because he hears the musicality of a simple good song.
A pair of covers showed his range in that respect. For Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” he replaced that song’s Jersey shoreline desperation with a new emphasis on the “dancing.” Legend’s spry right-hand piano riffing brought out the joy in what’s a usually bleak tune. For Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” however, he added new tension. Legend leaned into the dissonant chords on the line “I will lay me down” in a way that lent a bit of panic to a song about reassurance.
He closed the night with a pristine read on “All of Me.” On “Love in the Future,” it's produced to evoke an all-consuming sense of devotion. But on Wednesday, it played a little more prosaic. The chorus line “Give your all to me” could be an invitation to a marriage and a family, but it could also mean a date night downtown that lasts until sunrise. You can bet Legend would cook you breakfast in the morning, though. He’s just that classy.
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