They're the popular, smart ones in the neo-soul class - so self-assured and likable. At Merriweather Post Pavilion on a chilly Saturday night, Corinne Bailey Rae and John Legend wooed the full house with their unabashedly romantic take on modern soul. Given the artists' old-school sensibilities and refreshingly melodic, slightly quirky approaches, it made all the sense in the world to put these two on the same bill. And each delivered satisfying performances.
Bailey Rae - the British singer-songwriter whose charming, if uneven, 2006 self-titled debut garnered international acclaim - was sweetly personable, frequently flashing a girlish smile. Dressed in a simple slate-gray dress and matching tights, the 27-year-old artist looked as casual as her music sounds. Her eight-piece band more or less stuck to the uncluttered, laid-back arrangements on the platinum-selling debut, at times sounding almost too professional and stiff. But Bailey Rae's supple voice and delicate phrasing, echoing influences of Sade and Minnie Riperton, floated beautifully above it all.
She kicked off her hour-long set with "Trouble Sleeping," a subdued midtempo number on the self-titled album that was gloriously punched up onstage by the two-man horn section. Afterward, Bailey Rae settled into easy balladry. But the singer's engaging vocals, which were often more impassioned onstage than on the album, kept the music from melting into aural goop. She reminded the house of her jazz-club beginnings with a blues-suffused take of Led Zeppelin's "Since I've Been Loving You." About four minutes into the ballad, the arrangement surged with blazing electric guitar chords and gurgling organ swells before simmering down and fading out with Bailey Rae's fragile crooning. It was a superlative, understated dramatic performance.
Where Bailey Rae was intimately jazzy and somewhat restrained, Legend was feverishly soulful, pulling the audience into his music. His 11-piece band, which boasted a lively three-man horn section, was sharp, upping the funk factor as the well-paced, nearly two-hour set rolled on. Looking relaxed in a stylish black leather jacket and scarf, loose slacks and black-and-white Converse sneakers, Legend spent almost equal time grooving across the stage and sitting at the piano, singing choice tunes from his hit platinum albums: 2004's Get Lifted and last year's Once Again.
The first half of his show was dominated by cuts from the former. Although Get Lifted was one of the better soul albums of that year, lyrically it's mostly shallow. Songs such as "I Can Change," "She Don't Have to Know" and "Alright" - all of which Legend energetically performed on Saturday - presented the unassuming vocalist as a slick-talking good guy who can't help his cheating-dog ways. That role, however, felt contrived.
But on Once Again, the Ohio native is much more evolved musically - and lyrically. Now, he's more apt to celebrate endearing expressions of grown-up love such as dancing closely with his lover. During his performance of the blue-light-in-basement throwback number "Slow Dance," Legend invited a voluptuous woman onstage to slow grind with him to the slightly doo-wop groove. On "P.D.A. (We Just Don't Care)," a heart-warming ode to public displays of affection, Legend's band cleverly interpolated the Blackbyrds' jazz-fusion classic "Rock Creek Park." A faithful performance of the piano ballad "Ordinary People," one of the biggest radio hits of 2004, kept the romantic vibe glowing.
But Legend closed his exhilarating set on a somber, darker note. He affectingly crooned "Coming Home" (perhaps one of the loveliest wartime songs since Oleta Adams' 1990 "Get Here") as shots of solemn-faced soldiers and American flag-draped caskets flashed across the screen. "We pray we live to see another day in history," Legend sang. "Yes we still believe I'm coming/You know that I'll be coming home."