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Have I changed my mind about John Legend?

I am not the world’s greatest John Legend fan.

Frankly, his music puts me to sleep. Even when he covers great songs written by other, more talented people, he turns them into lullabies.


To listen to his version of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark is to first, feel irritation and then to start snoring. His version of the Beach Boys God Only Knows demonstrates how a singer can rip the dramatic beauty out of the heart of a song.


   I am aware that mine is a minority view. Legend is astonishingly popular. He has won Grammies. His concerts sell out. And his albums are not generally regarded as snoozefests because he has collaborated with some of the top dance-music producers of our time to create music that works well in clubs.


   Call it ignorant prejudice on my part, but his self-satisfied concert manner, like a lounge singer who talks like a slimmed-down Barry White, is actually the antithesis of what I look for when I go to a show.


   This little diatribe is to explain to you why I was not excited about going to the John Legend concert at Ambience Island (behind the Leela) in Gurgaon on Sunday night.


   And it is to tell you, how one must always be willing to re-examine one’s preconceptions and to judge things in real time to see if one has got it wrong.


   And yes, I was wrong.


   Let’s start with the show. It was organised by Walker and Co. an off-shoot of the Johnnie Walker empire. A year ago, when Shweta Jain of Diageo told me about the idea behind Walker and Co which would organise events (culture, music etc.) with no overt liquor connection, it sounded incredibly ambitious; nobody in India has even done anything like that before.


   And yet, here we were. Walker and Co. had organised shows in Mumbai and Delhi/NCR with a huge headline draw. And in no time at all the Walker and Co. brand had become established as a major entity. Much of the leadership team of Diageo is female. The managing director is Hina Nagarajan and Johnnie Walker is looked after by Serena Punch. So I guess women can work faster and more effectively than men.


   Serena was the point person on the Legend show and she organised it on a scale that is unprecedented in India. The section I sat in had table service, a never-ending stream of snacks and waiters pouring Blue Label for guests. (There were other sections with Black Label but all of it had an air of luxury.)


"A skilled and experienced performer knows how to get the audience going, even if he has only his piano and his voice to work with."

   The opening act at a concert always has a high-pressure job because it comes on when late-comers are still strolling in but Peter Cat Recording Co, a versatile Delhi brand fronted by Suryakant Sawhney rose to the challenge. The audio mix did them no favours and Suryakant stood too far back on the stage. But the music was terrific as were Suryakant’s asides (“I lived in Gurgaon. Sector Four. I don’t miss it.”) And there was a certain delicious jokey irony to his sign-off “Congratulations to John Legend for having us open for him.”


   Raja Kumari (born Svetha Rao in California to parents who came from Andhra) was next. She is best known in America as a successful rapper but for the India shows, she did less rap and drew on her vast range to perform in a variety of styles. I loved her stage presence, her charisma and her complete mastery of the live performance. Most of the audience had never heard any of her songs before but she soon had Delhi Punjabis dancing in the aisles and cheering wildly.


   Then came John Legend. I decided to put my prejudices to one side and to try and judge him objectively. It was just Legend and a piano in a large space and given that his music does not have much, shall we say, testicular energy, I wondered how he could follow the drama of Raja Kumari.


   In fact, he did not even have to try. From the moment he strode on stage, the audience went berserk. A gaggle of around 30 young women behind me shouted and screamed in the manner of the teenagers you see in old documentaries about the rise of Beatlemania.


   At the pit area, (well not exactly a pit; this was all very elegant) I found a mad crush of people dancing along to the music. (To a guy singing ballads on a piano? Yes, indeed!)


   That’s the thing about live performing. It is a completely different experience to listening to recorded music. A skilled and experienced performer knows how to get the audience going, even if he has only his piano and his voice to work with.


   I have been to innumerable concerts in India before: The Police, Sting on his own, Bruce Springsteen, America, Jose Feliciano, Bob Geldof and Mark Knopfler. And there are some I regret missing (Coldplay, mostly) but almost everybody else who performed had lots to work with: light shows, hit singles and tight bands.


   For Legend to get a Delhi/NCR crowd going merely by showing up is a tribute to his charisma.


  So, two things need to be said. Walker and Co. covers all kinds of activities in art and culture. But given how well this show was organised, I do hope they will plan more concerts in such elegant surroundings.


   And two: Have I changed my mind about Legend? Well partly. I admire how he got this audience on its feet. But I thought Raja Kumari blew him off the stage. And I find his smug lounge lizard manner as dull as his songs.


   But then, what do I know? The guy came to India. And he won the hearts of his audience.


   That’s what counts.



Posted On: 06 Mar 2023 07:52 PM
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