Dressed in a baby-blue tuxedo with tails — and flanked by three backing vocalists wearing matching tulle gowns — John Legend definitely looked like he was in the right place when he performed Saturday night to open the summer season at the Hollywood Bowl. And as he peppered his set with renditions of well-worn classics by Marvin Gaye and the Beach Boys, the pop-soul crooner with the smooth, imploring voice showed he was equally attuned to the established sound of this annual fundraiser for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s education initiatives.
In recent years the Phil has booked boomer-friendly veterans — including Diana Ross, Steely Dan and the Moody Blues — to headline the high-priced gig with accompaniment from the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. At 40, Legend is basically a kid by comparison — a familiar internet personality with proudly progressive political views and a history of collaborations with rappers like Kanye West and Rick Ross.
But if his presence unsettled any of the Bowl’s more genteel benefactors, they needn’t have worried: A management consultant before he found success in music, Legend can read a room like few in show business, which here meant he skipped his and 2 Chainz’s “Ghetto Dreams” in favor of “What’s Going On” and “God Only Knows.”
At one point he even sang Led Zeppelin’s syrupy “All My Love,” the orchestra’s string section sawing away politely behind him.
Beyond Legend’s desire to connect with an aging audience, you could understand why he was turning to proven material. Though he’s still a go-to hook man for hip-hop stars, the singer has been floundering in his music of late, seemingly unsure how to square his admirable efforts on a variety of social-justice causes — change he pursues alongside his wife, Chrissy Teigen — with his reputation as a purveyor of romantic wedding-reception favorites like “Save Room” and the chart-topping “All of Me.” He actually hit upon a pretty effective solution on 2016’s moving and thoughtful “Darkness and Light.” But then the album tanked.
Since then he’s sung “Beauty and the Beast” with Ariana Grande and put out a couple of so-so singles; he made a Christmas record and recorded a sentimental throwaway as part of NBC’s “Songland” competition. None of it has made much of an impact — so who could blame him for wanting to rouse folks with the exuberant brass riff from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up,” as he did at the Bowl?
Legend sounded fine doing all these covers, though he didn’t go very far in making any of them his own; “What’s Going On” felt even more faithful to Gaye’s original than when Legend performed it at the Bowl five years ago during a larger tribute to the artist whose blend of protest and emotion was a clear inspiration. And he was never less than skilled in his own tunes, including the slinky “Overload” and “A Good Night,” which had something of an early-’80s Lionel Richie vibe.
But true excitement was in short supply at Saturday’s concert, which raised more than $1.7 million, according to the L.A. Phil, and ended with an unannounced appearance by the rapper Common, who joined Legend for their Oscar-winning “Glory” as fireworks went off overhead.
You wouldn’t call it a thrill, but one disruption of the evening’s shallow Hollywood style came in Legend’s song “Ordinary People.” A bare-bones piano ballad on his 2004 debut, that’s how he did it here too, forgoing unnecessary orchestral sweetening for a smart little tune about the uncertainties of everyday life.
“We’re just ordinary people,” Legend sang, finally allowing a welcome bit of grit into his delivery, “We don’t know which way to go.”