It was opening night of John Legend’s Love in Las Vegas residency at Zappos Theater on April 22 and the smooth singer had already burst onto the stage with his band, dancers and backup singers with a rose-tinted church backdrop and plenty of tracks from his distinguished R&B catalog.
He had connected with the audience through conversation and a quick medley of some of his earliest work, uncredited contributions to songs by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. Showgoers in the sprawling space at the Planet Hollywood resort had been mostly swaying along in their seats until about midway through the concert, when Legend moved closest to his fans, sat at a grand piano and performed an emotional cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
After that moment, Legend had his audience hanging on every note for the rest of the show.
The morning after, he spoke about the special feeling during that part of his performance, and how important it was to go big for his first Vegas residency while maintaining an emotional connection with fans.
“Any time you start a new tour it’s different because you’re just figuring it out, a new setlist, a new production, and even though this is the biggest production we’ve done, it’s a similar feeling,” Legend said. “[And] that’s why I always do my stripped-down set, even though it’s this big production, because a lot of people’s favorite moment is always going to be me sitting down at the piano.
“That’s something unique I can do that not a lot of other artists of this generation can do, so why not do it. I think music is supposed to connect people and I feel very connected during that part of the show.”
The quick conversation that Saturday morning, also inside Zappos Theater, was the second time I’ve spoken with Legend, the 43-year-old artist who has now become the only EGOT winner to headline a concert residency on the Las Vegas Strip. (If you were thinking about Cher, who has no plans to return to her residency at Park MGM, so was I; she hasn’t won a Tony Award.) Legend won his Oscar in 2015, his Tony in 2017, and an Emmy in 2018 for Jesus Christ Superstar: Live In Concert on NBC. He claimed the first of a dozen Grammys in 2006.
The first time we spoke in 2004, Legend was just starting to make a name for himself, performing with a rising Kanye West at the House of Blues in Las Vegas while they both toured as opening acts for Usher. Back then, Legend never imagined he’d have his own show on the Strip.
“I never dreamed of doing Vegas. I used to watch artists performing on TV, on Star Search and the Grammys … and I wanted to be there,” he said. “I loved performing and singing and playing since I was 4 or 5 or 6 years old. I didn’t know it would take me to a Vegas residency or what else would come that, and I never even heard of an EGOT [for] a long time. But I loved making music and the feeling I got from making music, and now I get to do it for a living.”
The residency show was designed to bring the audience along through the musical journey of Legend’s career, starting “in the church and we end in Vegas,” he said, admitting how much he enjoys the final set in the concert where he descends a grand staircase wearing a luxurious faux fur coat surrounded by all the glitz and glamour that will fit onstage. That’s when some of his most familiar up-tempo hits cap the night, “Bigger Love” and “Green Light.”
Love in Las Vegas will continue to be adjusted and tweaked after its opening weekend, but the early version distinguishes itself from other residency shows because it feels so personal to Legend. Like all the other stars of the Strip, he wanted to pay homage to Vegas with a little extra flash, but also to celebrate how he got here, “where I come from, my upbringing, my family,” he said.
“Vegas is always going to be a mix of a lot of different people. They may be casual fans that know a couple songs but may not know all the history, and so it’s interesting to show them where I come from.”
JOHN LEGEND: LOVE IN LAS VEGAS April 27, 29-30, May 6-7, 8 p.m., $79-$400+. Zappos Theater, ticketmaster.com.