John Legend with Robin Thicke. At the Arlington Theatre, Friday, November 17.

Reviewed by Charles Donelan

John-Legend-Web.jpgPeople danced in their seats and the aisles for most of the night at this concert, a rare local appearance by a Top 40 soul artist. Standing or sitting, the crowd showed their love for these singers by keeping up a steady stream of squeals from the girls and encouragement from the guys.

Opener Robin Thicke has a local connection through dad Alan and a very polished and high-impact set to promote his new CD, The Evolution of Robin Thicke on StarTrak/Interscope, Pharrell’s label. Justin “Timberlite” jokes and John Legend’s momentary confusion about his name aside, Thicke has a great voice and lots of stage presence. His style favors Marvin Gaye, and he didn’t miss a note in some very challenging arrangements. Whether or not the world really needs a white Usher, right down to the heart-on-the-Gucci-sleeve confessional songwriting style, is up to you and everyone else on iTunes; but if the answer is yes, Thicke is the man for the job.

John Legend has everything one could ask for in a headliner. From the moment he stepped into the spotlight it was clear this would be a big, soul-satisfying show. His band of eight includes three back-up singers, and even though he doesn’t travel with a horn section the way classic soul revues do, Legend and his group still make a gospel-tinged wall of sound out of all but his most intimate numbers. The hits, like “She Don’t Have to Know” and “Number One,” just kept coming, reminding everyone present that this man has been charting constantly for almost three years now, either in his own right or as voice and piano on tracks by artists such as Kanye West.

Legend is that rare contemporary soul singer who can get through a show without taking off his shirt. He shed his brown leather jacket early on and spent most of the night looking comfortable in a loose white T-shirt, but the fact that he avoids the seemingly mandatory Kabuki theater of vocalist pectoral display was, paradoxically, an eye-opener. The most tumultuous response of the evening came when he sat down at the grand piano to play his surprise break-out hit single “Ordinary People.” Its message — “this time we’ll take it slow” — is cautionary rather than rapacious or boastful, and the song, which was released to radio in the unheard-of format of solo piano and vocal, captures a thoughtful and sensitive mood. Now that’s different.

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