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Monday, Dec. 20, 2010

John Legend @ The Potawatomi Bingo Casino

Dec. 19, 2010

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The Potawatomi Bingo Casino’s Northern Lights Theater is a good deal more intimate than the theaters John Legend typically plays, yet with its Las Vegas-style seating it was an oddly fitting venue for the singer. More so than most of his soul contemporaries, there’s a whiff of Vegas in Legend’s music, right down to its occasional lounge-music grooves and glitzy, show-stopping arrangements. Behind Legend’s impeccably tailored clothes and veneer of GQ-model sophistication hides a performer who probably does a wicked Carlton dance, a singer nearly as inspired by Tom Jones as he is Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers.

This side of Legend is mostly absent from his latest album, Wake Up!, an inspired but imperfect pairing with The Roots, a band born of hip-hop’s minimalism and neo-soul’s understatement. On Sunday night, however, Legend’s 10-piece touring band indulged the singer’s need to go big, punching up his songs with an aggressive horn section and a trio of backing singers. Their arrangements were decidedly less hip than The Roots’, but Legend has never needed his music to be hip. With his golden voice, he can pass off even the gaudiest sounds and schmaltziest sentiments as debonair, and Sunday’s show gave him complete freedom to work that alchemy. Coming from Legend, come-ons like “Let’s go to the moon, baby,” and songs like the sprightly sex-in-public ode “P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care)” never seem as ridiculous as they actually are.

Legend’s songwriting is at his most effective, though, when he’s singing about the real-life intricacies of romance. His signature ballad “Ordinary People” touchingly chronicles a frayed relationship that is nonetheless still capable of tenderness. “Blame Game,” Legend’s feature on Kanye West’s new My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and one of the highlights of his set Sunday, plays like that song’s bleaker sequel, portraying a relationship now well past its expiration date. Where “Ordinary People” vaguely hinted at lovers’ quarrels, “Blame Game” recounts them in squalid detail: “I'll call you bitch for short/ As a last resort, and my first resort,” Legend sings remorsefully. “You call me motherfucker for long/ At the end of it, you know we both were wrong.” It’s an oddity in Legend’s songbook. Legend’s songs often weigh the risks and trade-offs required for love, but “Blame Game” is the first to conclude that maybe they’re not worth it.
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