If last week’s heatwave in Southern California didn’t do it for you, the opening weekend of the Hollywood Bowl’s 2019 season is proof positive that summer’s here. This Saturday we were treated to the soulful sounds of recent EGOT-achiever John Legend. You don’t win a Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony by luck – whether his neo-soul sound is really your thing, there’s no denying John Legend is one of the greatest performers and talents of the last two decades. From the opening notes of a truncated intro-version of “Higher,” Legend sang and spoke about love and acceptance, both towards others and yourself.
Tonight the weather had returned to a tolerable level and a cold canyon breeze even left a bit of a chill inside the amphitheater as the performer, his band and the backing Hollywood Bowl Orchestra connected with the audience over a 18-song set (including one encore performance).
Before Legend took the stage for his headlining performance, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and its charismatic conductor Thomas Wilkins treated the audience to a pair of songs. First was a waltz from Madame Bovary and next was “Dance of the Comedians” from The Bartered Bride. Though it was opening night the performers played tightly and exuded copious energy and camaraderie throughout their performances. After a short intro between the songs, Wilkins introduced the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra, which goes by the acronym YOLA. That program had recently seen several members graduate and many of these graduates participated in the next two numbers alongside Orchestra members. The first was “Danse nègre” from African Suite and the next “Bacchanale” from Samson et Dalila. As Wilkins pointed out breathlessly after the two powerhouse performances by the Orchestra and the young YOLA members from around the region, these kids were totally ready for the moment. There were no jaws agape at the magnitude of performing in front of thousands of spectators at one of the most famous music venues in the world. The young musicians simply delivered and powerfully.
After a brief intermission, it was time for Legend to take the stage. Behind sound-dampening walls was the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, while Legend played with his own large band that included a guitarist, bassist, a trio of background singers, a trumpeter, saxophonist and trombonist, drummer, percussionist and keyboardist/musical director Eugene “Man Man” Roberts. One of the most pleasurable aspects of watching this collaboration between professional musicians was seeing the subtle interactions between Roberts and Wilkins as they coordinated mid-performance.
Wordlessly he launched into the aforementioned “Higher” intro, wearing a mighty-spiffy blue tuxedo with long coattails that matched the dazzling, cascading dresses of his backing vocalists. The first proper song of his set was “Penthouse Floor” from Darkness & Light, an upbeat number that got the packed house grooving along with the orchestra-backed soul sounds. “Tonight” followed, a requisite love song with Legend promising to be “the best you’ve ever had.” On the next song “Love Me Now,” the audience was obviously starting to swoon over Legend’s velvety vocals, which were further strengthened by the most powerful performance by the orchestra at this point in the set.
“Overload,” a song that Legend pointed out he wrote with local R&B star Miguel, was next. While this song was performed without the backing of the orchestra, they came back on for Legend’s throwback track, his first-ever single from 2004 debut album Get Lifted, “Used to Love U.” For the quiet ballad “Again,” the focus turned to Legend alone, playing his piano and earnestly belting out the lyrics. As his band laid down a quiet doo-wop style groove, he addressed the Bowl. He acknowledged that “sometimes we take our loved ones for granted” and that we “gotta love each other like we’re gonna lose each other” before he began “Like I’m Gonna Lose You.”
The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra led the instrumentation for the next song, a heartfelt performance of “Preach.” The song spoke to themes of social change, with lyrics like “I can’t see the use in me crying / If I’m not even tryna make the change I wanna see” and “And though I do believe / I can’t just preach, baby, preach.” True to the words of his song, Legend has been well-regarded for his contributions to social justice — he truly doesn’t just preach. Continuing the theme, Legend covered the Marvin Gaye classic “What’s Going On,” with the Bowl becoming illuminating in an ever-shifting rainbow (in an intersectional nod to the gay-rights movement), each arc behind the stage transforming between colors, creating an undulating effect.
“Ordinary People” came next, one of Legend’s most iconic tracks. It of course was well-received with the singer giving the crowd the opportunity to sing along, which they did in a mostly-strong effort. As the lights dimmed behind him, Legend came out to the front of the stage for an acapella version of the Beach Boys classic “God Only Knows.” That moving bit of vocal performance was sandwiched by another one of the singer’s biggest hits, “You & I.” There was yet another cover later in the set, with a soulful take on the already-sultry Led Zeppelin song “All of My Love.” Before he closed out the set he performed another huge hit, “All of Me” which once again saw the audience leading the vocals in the chorus, improving upon their performance a few songs earlier. Next, he performed while holding his somewhat-shy daughter Luna, who in a cute moment essentially had to be pried from the singer by his spouse Chrissy Teigen so he could move on to the next portion of the song. The final performance of the main set was “Move On Up,” which featured the horn section blowing out the iconic riff from the Curtis Mayfield song.
With the orchestra members remaining on stage, it was inevitable that an encore would be coming. As Legend’s band took the stage and announced the next song, they revealed the biggest surprise of the night. The final song was his Academy Award winning song “Glory” from the movie Selma, part of the musician’s march towards the uber-prestigious EGOT designation. The performance was flawless, with Common delivering his verses with power and conviction, projections of Martin Luther King Jr. displayed along the walls of the Bowl. As the two performed this meaningful tribute to the Civil Rights legends of the past, fireworks hammered home the significance of yet another powerhouse performance by a Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame member.
John Legend at Hollywood Bowl Set List
“Love Me Now”
“Used To Love U”
“Like I’m Gonna Lose You”
“What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye cover)
“God Only Knows” (Beach Boys cover)
“You & I”
“All My Love” (Led Zeppelin cover)
“All of Me”
“Move On Up”
“Glory” featuring Common