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Arts and Entertainment

John Legend and Corinne Bailey Rae @ UCI, 4/3

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John Legend and Corinne Bailey Rae kicked off their 33-date US tour at UCI’s Bren Events Center on Tuesday night, reuniting two of the young stars who (along with Mr. Jessica Simpson John Mayer) delivered a poignant sleepy set at February’s Grammy Awards. In contrast to that milquetoast performance, Legend and CBR gave a lively three-hour show which even got the normally subdued Orange County crowd on its feet.

In this current era of pop music, where manufactured electronic beats coupled with absurdly simple lyrics (e.g. “I’m hot cuz I’m fly, you ain’t cuz you not,” or anything by Fergie) dominate the charts, it’s becoming increasingly rare to find artists that successfully cross over into the mainstream while maintaining a shred of originality, creativity, and versatility. Thus, it was refreshing to see John and Corinne exhibit all of these things while rockin’ the stage.

The British CBR, who was nominated for three Grammys in 2007 including Best New Artist, is best known for the breezy, sugary sweet “Put Your Records On” and the vulnerable “Like a Star” off her eponymous album. While both of those tracks possess a nice non-threatening pop sound, they belie the actual force of her voice and the rock and jazz-infused soul which underlies more of her music. Indeed, one of the most impactful songs was a take on Led Zeppelin’s piercing ballad, “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, which alternated between bass-syncopated rhythms and a heavy electric guitar riffs behind Corinne’s emotional vocals.

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At the same time, CBR showed off her playful personality with her easy delivery of the funky "I'd Like To". Although some of my female companions were preoccupied with her nice legs, I was drawn into her upper register runs on the passionate "Breathless". But the unique quality of her voice was really highlighted when the band fell to the background on the slower songs like "Till It Happens to You", allowing Corinne's slightly melancholy tone to resonate throughout the arena, giving off a near haunting vibe.

Like Corinne, five-time Grammy award winner John Legend is perhaps better known for his soft piano-heavy ballads like "Ordinary People" but has been a force in the R&B/hip-hop scene for several years, collaborating with artists such as Kanye West, Common, and Fort Minor. Thus, it wasn't entirely surprising to see Legend in full showmanship mode. Nevertheless, it was interesting to contrast his trademark grand piano at center stage with his constant prancing and preening around the stage.

Legend seemed determined to leave a memorable performance, perhaps to live up to his namesake (his actual last name is Stephens). He was backed by a full band, including horn section, which dialed up the beat and energy level for some of his more sweet tracks like "P.D.A. (We Just Don't Care)" and "Number One". Legend even wandered into the crowd for a performance of the Sly & the Family Stone classic "Dance to the Music". He got his sexy on as well, grinding up on a girl from the first row while ripping through "Slow Dance".

That isn't to say that Legend totally ignored his tender side. While not possessing the purest vocal, Legend's smoky tenor provided a rich contrast in sound to the simple elegance of his piano playing when he slowed it down for a heartfelt rendition of "Coming Home" or the sweet "Where Did My Baby Go". It is precisely this ability to lace a beautiful melody with a sensitive lyric that separates Legend from many of his peers in the genre, who are heavily reliant on oversexed, machismo-laden dance hall tracks. Legend does dabble into these types of songs, but really makes his mark when he displays his vulnerability.

Legend actually performed all but about five tracks from his 2004 Get Lifted album and the 2006 Once Again album. He even threw in the Latin-influenced "Please Baby Don't" which he recorded on Sergio Mendes' Timeless album. However, it was a surprise duet with CBR that elicited the biggest cheer from the crowd, a fun version of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway's "Where is The Love?" Two great performers with great voices having a great time on stage together.

John Legend and Corinne Bailey Rae will be performing at Gibson Amphitheatre on Friday at 8 pm.