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It isn’t often that a multi-platinum artist chooses to play a small, intimate venue in London, a reality usually dictated by the need to severely reduce said artist’s fee! But John Legend has never been one to follow tradition, witness his latest album, the brilliant “Wake Up!” set created with the super-talented Roots.

I admit that going in, I was a little biased: “Wake Up” is my favorite album of 2010 and was obviously the focus of the show – which followed a successful night at The Hammersmith Apollo, a venue that holds at least four-six times the number of people jam-packed into the Jazz Café.

John and The Roots, augmented by a trio of female background vocalists, kicked everything into high gear with a funky, hard-edged “Hard Times,” the Baby Huey song also written and recorded by Curtis Mayfield and after John shared that the last time he had played the venue was several years ago, he launched into a biting reading of “Compared To What,” a song I first heard by Les McCann back in the late ‘60s, revived by Roberta Flack on her first Atlantic album.

John’s intro to Donny Hathaway’s classic “Little Ghetto Boy” (which featured – as did a number of tunes – rapper Black Thought) made reference to the greats of soul music (Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Mayfield and Hathaway, all of whom are represented with songs on “Wake Up!” ) – and gave me cause to pause, realizing that I had interviewed three of that illustrious quartet.

That John and The Roots have chosen to revive the music of these musical giants is truly outstanding: not only are they being ‘introduced’ to a whole new generation but for old school folks like me, these tunes are a reminder that while there may have been many changes politically, socially and economically since the late ‘60s and early ’70s, the challenges that everyday folks face pretty much remain the same. Food for thought.

Other selections from “Wake Up” included “Hang On In There” and “Our Generation” before John and co. – obviously having a good time, spurred on by the enthusiasm of the packed house – launched into “Humanity,” the reggae cut (originally done by Prince Lincoln).

Legend knows the importance of balancing his latest work with his own contemporary classics, clear that while most of those gathered for this unique gig would probably be aware of “Wake Up!” the exclusion of tunes like the haunting “Again” (from his 2006 sophomore album ), the still-infectious“Used To Love U” (the first hit from his 2004 debut CD) and the Legend anthem, the plaintive “Ordinary People” was essential.

Sandwiched between the latter two tunes was the timeless Philly soul chestnut, “Wake Up Everybody,” whose lyrics are as relevant today as they were back in the ‘70s: indeed, Legend’s somewhat risky choice to step away from the relative comfort of the pop and mainstream success he has enjoyed over the past six years by doing his current album of social message songs was fully justified by the inclusion of this song as well as the unquestionable standout of the evening.

In our interview for Soul a few months ago, John and I spoke at length about Bill Withers’ pointed anti-Vietnam War song, “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” As potent as the track is as the highlight of “Wake Up!” the live performance of the tune is riveting and edgy – with superb musicianship from The Roots, in particular drummer Ahmir ?love’s who was absolutely spectacular alongside keyboardist James Poyser and guitarist (Captain) Kirk Douglas –is indeed one of the best performances I’ve ever seen by a contemporary artist.

Having lived in the U.S. for most of my adult life, I know the musical phrase ‘going to church’ well and Legend and his musical cohorts took us there with the kind of orgasmic energy that can be heard on many a Sunday morning when the spirit hits!

“I Can’t Write Left Handed” was tough to follow but a required encore set included the ever-popular “Save Room” (from “Once Again”), a detour into the Stevie Wonder songbook for “I Love Every Little Thing About You,” the obligatory “Green Light” (from John’s third CD, “Evolver”) and finally, an uplifting, rousing “Shine,” the one new Legend composition on “Wake Up!”

I have been fortunate to have seen so many wonderful live shows over my past forty-five years – yup, forty-five – and unquestionably, John Legend and The Roots’ performance at The Jazz Café will stay etched in my memory banks and consciousness for a long time to come and was certainly one of the best this decade.

About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create Records as a leading reissue label.







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