No album title was more prescient in 2008 than Ne-Yo's Year of the Gentleman, which led a small army of R&B albums by sharp-dressed male singers displaying both emotional maturity and musical progression, including efforts by Robin Thicke, Raheem DeVaughn, and Dwele. Two singers that stood out in that crowded field were John Legend and Raphael Saadiq, and their current tour together stopped in Baltimore Monday night at the Lyric Opera House.
Saadiq's opening set was a live version of his retro-themed new album, The Way I See It, right down to his band's suits and synchronized dance moves. While it's easy to feel jaded about the current wave of derivative '60s soul acts that have flooded the marketplace in the wake of Amy Winehouse's success, the former Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman has spent 20 years mining those influences to great effect with original songwriting and contemporary production. So it's worth giving Saadiq the benefit of the doubt if he wants to go ahead and mimic that era's sound more overtly for once, especially when the results are as endlessly listenable as The Way I See It.
Saadiq essentially played the majority of the new album's songs for 50 minutes, stretching its 3-minute pop tunes out into heartier jams with tastefully restrained backing from his 10-piece band. He only broke out of the new material's confining stylistic shell to revisit his back catalog briefly, launching into an ecstatic rendition of his short-lived supergroup Lucy Pearl's 2000 hit "Dance Tonight." The only real disappointment of Saadiq's set was that he neglected to play one of The Way I See It's best songs, "Never Give You Up," which garnered a Grammy nomination last week, and which features a young Baltimore singer named CJ Hilton who would've been great to see on the Lyric stage.
John Legend may be the living embodiment of a gentlemanly R&B crooner, but based on the way he opens his current stage show, he apparently didn't get the memo. His set on Monday was preceded by a fairly ridiculous pre-taped video projection, depicting the piano-playing balladeer as a sweaty, shirtless boxer. And when he arrived in the flesh, Legend was dressed in all black, wearing a leather jacket, boots, sunglasses, and fingerless gloves, like some kind of futuristic biker. Sure, his new album, Evolver aims for a more modern, uptempo sound, but it still felt like Legend was trying a little too hard to reinvent his image.
Fortunately, the loud, splashy sound of Legend's band suited him better than his outfit. His set kept up such a brisk pace early on it that it felt like he'd run through every song from his three albums, and in an hour and a half he nearly did. Some songs, such as "Heaven," felt a little rushed with faster tempos and truncated arrangements. But then there were a few truly inspired choices later in the show, such as a medley that drifted seamlessly from "I Love, You Love" to Prince's "Adore" and "Purple Rain" and back into Legend's original material. When the singer teased the chorus of his current hit, "Green Light," midway through the show, the audience whooped with anticipation, but Legend didn't finally let the monster of a dance track loose until the end of the set, replacing the Andre 3000 guest verse with an inventive bridge based on Snoop Dogg's "Sensual Seduction."
A more familiar Legend appeared onstage when he returned for the encore, dressed in a tuxedo and seated at the grand piano he'd only sparingly played earlier. Playing his breakthrough hit "Ordinary People" solo, he proved that the song's simple piano and voice arrangement and powerful hook haven't lost a bit of their impact in the past four years. The closing song, the new single "If You're Out There," was every bit as rousing, its inspirational chorus ringing out while illustrated portraits of various historical figures were projected on the screen behind him. When an image of the man that inspired the song, president elect Barack Obama, flashed on the screen as the song came to a close, it was an absolutely predictable and calculated moment, and yet it worked, sending chills up the spine and ending the evening with a perfect moment.