SALAMANCA - You want to compare John Legend to Nat King Cole, because of the virtuoso piano playing and the silky smooth voice.
You want to compare him to a young Smokey Robinson because there is a slight resemblance and because of his soaring falsetto.
Both are close but not quite right. As he demonstrated Friday night to a crowd of better than 2,000 in the Seneca Allegany Casino, Legend’s talent and style make a good argument for the word “unique.” As in one of a kind.
Let’s just say right off the bat that when you choose the name Legend as your stage moniker, you’re setting yourself up to fall victim to impossible expectations. And yet somehow, from the first note, it seemed like “Legend” might be an understatement.
Those who came to the show knowing Legend only from his No. 1 song “All of Me” had a long wait to sing along. The 35-year-old native of Springfield, Ohio, apparently is a believer in saving the most well-known for last.
He walked onstage wearing a tuxedo, a tie loosened at the neck and a 100-watt grin and immediately settled onto a bench at his grand piano. His accompaniment consisted of a guitarist and a string quartet, but much of the night featured him, his piano and his voice. That was plenty.
It was a mass seduction from the start, leading off with “Made to Love” (“I was sent here for you. We were made to love. We were made to love.”) and “Tonight (Best You Ever Had)” (“Come on let me kiss that, oh, I know you miss that.”).
His lyrics are not all so straightforward, as in “Green Light,” which he co-wrote and which includes this memorable line: “Do I have a girlfriend? Technically, no. But you be my girlfriend and I’ll make it so.”
Legend has an impressive vocal range and his voice has a soulfulness that imbues his songs with passion. It apparently doesn’t even matter whether he is singing actual words; while describing his writing process, he said he starts with the melody and fills the space where lyrics will go with gibberish, which he than sang for a while.
People cheered the gibberish.
When he wasn’t making audience members swoon, he was making them laugh, including when he asked the Southern Tier crowd: “Anybody here from Buffalo? (Cheers.) Anybody here from Erie? (Cheers.)”
“I don’t know what else to ask for.”
Legend has an extensive discography from which to draw, and in addition to writing his own songs, has written for and performed with a who’s who of musicians, including Kanye West, Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson. He played mostly original compositions Friday, but also delivered incredible versions of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and the Simon and Garfunkel classic, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
His nearly two-hour set officially came to a close with no sign of “All of Me,” which made the pre-encore cheering a little less “Thanks for a great night” and more, “Hey! You forgot one!”
But Legend didn’t make the audience wait. He came back out and gave them what they wanted.
And then he didn’t have to do much of the singing; the audience handled much of that for him as he smiled and let his own words and music wash over him.