Stripped-down John Legend concert melts sell-out crowd

Fans of John Legend have said they’d pay to hear the nine-time Grammy winner sing the phone book. On Sunday night at Belk Theater, during his first Charlotte performance in almost three years, they paid to hear him sing a bunch of gibberish.

There he was, seated at a Yamaha grand piano, wearing a crisp black dress shirt under a crisp black suit, talking about how he writes songs. It starts with the music, he says, maybe some chords; then he messes around with random lyrics – sometimes, he just sings gibberish.

Legend demonstrated, and the nonsense he spewed made everyone laugh. Until it hit them that this was the most beautiful-sounding nonsense they’d ever heard.

So to no one’s surprise, his actual set list comprised a flawlessly sung collection of 19 piano-driven love songs (mostly power ballads) that melted grown women into squealing woo-girls for two hours.

This was stripped-down Legend – maybe not in the sense certain ladies might have desired, but rather with spare musical accompaniment: a string quartet, and his guitarist/musical director Ryan Lerman, both of which were always on stage but dropped in and out of songs.

He only seemed to get overwhelmed by the swelling violins once, during “So High,” but just when I started to get slightly frustrated, they went silent and Legend closed with an elegant piano solo and a show-stopping bit of a cappella.

Otherwise, the “band” and its leader were note-perfect, from seductively soulful opener “Made to Love” to funky/jazzy hit “Green Light” to the infectiously romantic tribute to new wife Chrissy Teigen, “All of Me” (the biggest song of his career). Sandwiched in between his originals were magnificent covers of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” along with some charming storytelling.

Legend talked about his early days, playing at 5:30 on Friday afternoons at The Living Room in Manhattan for four people; about rapper and longtime cheerleader Kanye West helping him get his first break by promoting him to record companies as “the next Stevie Wonder”; and – most amusingly – about memories of his father, an auto factory worker in Springfield, Ohio, whose date-night splurge for Legend’s mom was a trip to Red Lobster.

“He taught me how to treat a woman,” the singer told the sell-out Belk crowd. “The way to a woman’s heart is all-you-can-eat shrimp.”

Joining Legend and the musicians on stage were five pairs of fans seated in love seats to the rear of it; two sets of girlfriends and three male-female couples (one of which he briefly interviewed before dedicating “You and I” to their relationship). The set-up seemed like a neat touch at first, but became increasingly awkward as the night wore on.

He also asked fans what they wanted to hear a couple of times, and while the sentiment is nice, I suspect Legend already had a handful of songs in mind to play next, so was simply waiting for the right title to be shouted out. Not a sin, if true, but on top of that, request-taking almost always just leads to shouting matches.

Obviously, these are minor quibbles. There’s no question this was a breathtaking performance. And the setting at Belk was much classier and more intimate than his 2011 show with Sade at cavernous, impersonal Time Warner Cable Arena, and the wonderful acoustics were an excellent match for Legend’s warm, full, buttery voice.

“I want to make this show feel like you’re just hanging out in my living room,” he said early on.

If he can fit 2,000 people into his living room, then yes, he succeeded gloriously.