It was a rainy fall night outside the Theater at MGM National Harbor. Inside, it is anything but. For over two hours on Tuesday, October 12, the EGOT-winning performer John Legend transformed the swish concert hall into a celebration of life, love, color, and music, performing a mix of standbys, covers, and songs off his seventh studio album, “Bigger Love,” released in June 2020.
Getting to the venue required a trek across the casino floor. Passing through acres of tables and slot machines was fitting preparation for Legend, who evoked the airs and charms of a ’50s crooner. The high-ceilinged entrance to the theater gleams with light and gold, contrasting the sleek, black-mirrored surfaces of the intimate lobby beyond. A stop by the bar for a highball felt appropriate before entering the generously-sized theater, wrapped in warm wood and crowned with asymmetrical chandeliers.
Legend’s first song, a lush cover of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” completed the vibe. The song’s gentle rhythmic piano and lyrics felt like a long-lost Legend song, particularly in the 1959 doo-wop version by The Flamingoes. After the slow-burning opener, the next three songs —“I Do” and “One Life” off “Bigger Love” and “Tonight (Best You Ever Had)”— rushed by in blur.
Legend performed with an eight-piece band, dressed in khakis and floral shirts, and three backup singers in voluminous sunflower yellow gowns. The sound mixes heavily favored the bass and percussions. The horns, and even Legend himself, were occasionally drowned out. The screens flanking the stage vibrated continuously, as did the air in our lungs.
Legend knew how to work his audience, inviting us to dance, clap and sing along throughout the evening, his hands guiding us like the church choir director he was. The diverse crowd, stylish in minimalist sneakers and heels, fitted jackets and skinny jeans, was more than ready to oblige.
When Legend’s white Yamaha piano arrived on stage, pushed in by stagehands, cheers erupted like welcoming a guest of honor. Eager to capture Legend at its keys, much of the audience watched the next song, the swooning, soaring new ballad “U Move, I Move” through their cell phone screens.
Above the stage, technicolor projections of hanging gardens, tropical mountains, pyramids, sunrises, and starry nights nodded to Afrofuturism and Legend’s thematic mix of earthly and metaphysical love. Legend appeared in a series of eye-arresting colors: cerulean blue, carnation pink, and a double-breasted army green jacket over a shimmering black shirt. The rapture of color matched the joy Legend and his fellow performers brought to the stage.
The set list alternated between R&B and high-energy songs. After three skyrocketing horn solos at the end of “Don’t Walk Away,” Legend momentarily kept us airborne during a blackout with the first notes of “Feeling Good,” the big band hit recorded by Nina Simone, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Michal Bublé. Legend performed the song on the National Mall during Celebrate America, an inaugural concert last January. An advocate for protecting and expanding voting rights, among other liberal causes, Legend notably kept politics offstage during his performance in the Capitol.
He did, however, remind us how much we have gone through during the last 18 months. In a spotlighted soliloquy, Legend, underscoring himself at the piano, recounted his long and winding road to fame. Rejected by Star Search and every major record label (including his current one), he kept at it. Although Legend’s story is star-studded, supported by artists like Lauryn Hill, will. i. am, Kayne West and Alicia Keys, a sense of humility and gratitude marked his telling. Throughout, he highlighted the tenacity and audacity required to not only make it through hard times — but to achieve something. “Get yourself ready. Luck is preparation meeting opportunity,” he said. “Brag,” he also advised. “Sometimes, you have to talk your shit.”
Fittingly, Legend gave a local performer an opportunity to shine. Tamara Jade, whom Legend coached to the semifinal of season 19 of “The Voice,” joined her former mentor for a duet version of CeeLo Green’s “Crazy.” During an instrumental break, the Bowie, Maryland, native told the band to try it D.C. style, setting off the percussion and bass in a brief homage to Go-Go music.
In the final stretch, Legend sang “Ordinary People” and “All of Me” accompanied by most of the crowd, minus a few amorous couples dancing in the aisles. In another quiet, confessional moment, Legend shared a new song, one he said has been a source of comfort and healing to his family during a year of struggles. “You don’t know how powerful you are,” he sings. “We are made of stardust, the universe inside of us.” For a few minutes, the miraculous voice of John Legend reminded us that being here is a miracle, that we are miracles, too.
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