Like that one cool teacher we all had way back when, John Legend and the Roots schooled a sold out crowd at New York City’s Terminal 5 last night. Promoting their collaborative release Wake Up!, comprised mostly of Civil Rights-fueled ‘60s and ‘70s covers, the soul crooner and hip-hop’s baddest band in the land ran through several tracks from the new set—as well as a few of Legend’s biggest hits. It was filmed by director Spike Lee and live streamed on Youtube and Vevo as the latest installment in American Express’ Unstaged concert series.
Parting the audience, Legend and the Roots entered like a New Orleans marching band and stepped up the stage to open with Curtis Mayfield’s “Hard Times,” their hard-hitting cut where John plays the part of a man surrounded neighbors who are quietly racist towards him. The song, like many others from their album embodied the evening’s lesson: Yeah, these songs were inspired from music created during the Civil Rights movement decades ago. But as much as things have changed, they’ve also stayed the same. As a U.S. flag waved in the background, Legend coolly sang Mike James Kirkland’s encouraging classic “Hang on in There.” The song’s breakdown, which included some spoken words about how Legend couldn’t turn his back on his friends or his country, did fall on some deaf ears, though.
“They better play some of their old stuff,” said one disgruntled man to his date. Presumably, he came for a more lighthearted show and not a Wake Up! call to action rally. Others also used some of the show’s most thoughtful moments to talk amongst themselves. It’s already tough to perform a record that came out two days before. Combine that with it being one rife with heavy messages and like a high school history lesson, the audience tuned out.
Eventually they got what they wanted. Legend dipped into his stash of R&B hits and pulled out his upbeat suggestive jam “Green Light.” Then the Roots brought out English siren Estelle for “You Got Me.” The crowd was alive and attentive again. From then on, there were no letdowns. In a white shirt, black vest, and matching sunglasses, Common joined songstress Melanie Fiona on stage for “Wake Up,” earning the night’s biggest applause.
As the lights dimmed, Legend followed with his biggest hit to date, “Ordinary People.” But just when people thought they got their money’s worth and were just about set to go, the encore brought the night’s biggest surprise guest. A slender Jennifer Hudson glided out to sing Walter Hawkins’ “Be Grateful” along with John.
Fans usually come to concerts to escape from the day’s harsh realities. Instead tonight John and the Roots smacked their audience with unabashed truth, still managing to make them groove. Racism’s still alive. Poverty exists within our boarders. And there is a war going on. I guess everything sounds better to Questlove’s beat.
Watch them perform “I Can’t Write Left Handed” and “Compared To What” after the jump.
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