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Review: John Legend kicks off crisp Christmas tour with style at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater

The first of the crooner's holiday concerts opened in Florida on Thursday.
John Legend performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Nov. 15, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)
John Legend performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Nov. 15, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)
Published Nov. 16, 2018

What does an EGOT get you these days?

If you're John Legend, wining an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony gets you your very own Christmas tour. It gets you a five-piece band, three horns and three backup singers. And it gets you an array of snazzy suits crisper than freshly fallen snow, cranberry and golden and robin's egg blue.

As singers go, Legend's less a dynamo than the classiest of classicists, and that pro's pro's style is all over his first holiday album, A Legendary Christmas. It's also the foundation of his first holiday tour, which kicked off Thursday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.

On a minty-fresh stage popping with color and elan, Legend crooned through most of A Legendary Christmas as fans in Santa hats and Christmas sweaters sang and danced in their seats. It was, as one of his video backdrops put it, "The Johnny Legend Show," with the singer in the variety-show driver's seat.

Legend updated old classics in still-timeless fashion, doing Stevie Wonder and Bing Crosby proud on peppy openers What Christmas Means to Me and Silver Bells, and adding much-needed snap to the old Peanuts dirge Christmas Time is Here. There was just the right amount of seasonal affect to the blues of Merry Christmas Baby and Please Come Home for Christmas, the latter all about that backing brass. And N'awlins-flavored closer Merry Merry Christmas ended with snow falling on a second-line march around the stage.

John Legend performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Nov. 15, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

Throughout the night, Legend mixed in a few of his signature hits, getting people to their feet on Green Light and having them sing along on All Of You and Ordinary People.

"You can stand up and dance if you want to," he urged fans on the throbbing Tonight (Best You Ever Had), shoving over his mic stand with don't-need-this panache.

But the night's most interesting suite came in the middle, when Legend grabbed a velvet smoking jacket, the singers donned funky jumpsuits and the holiday lighting went from merry into mood. The intoxicating No Place Like Home was imbued with smooth soul, all flute and muted trumpet. Wrap Me Up In Your Love was a simmering wassail of shakers and chimes, and Marvin Gaye's Purple Snowflakes begged for a full, funky symphony.

Swap the eggnog for a pina colada, and what you had on your hands here was yacht rock, the sort you might hear from a Santa-like soul saint like Michael McDonald. This is not a direction one might expect a John Legend Christmas concert to go, and that should be taken as a compliment. They don't hand out EGOTs for always doing things by the book.

John Legend performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Nov. 15, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

Speaking of awards: Legend never mentioned all his. But they did make a cameo during You and I (Nobody In the World), a number featuring video clips of Legend, wife Chrissy Teigen and their two young children at home, with Legend's Instagram-famous trophy case in the background.

Sadly, while Teigen herself was also in Clearwater for the opener, she didn't pop out on stage. But in a way, her presence was all over the show. Legend's video backdrop often featured the word love: "Love when it's easy," "Love when it's hard," stamps and labels with the letters L-O-V-E in different scripts.

Love, they say, is the one thing money can't buy. But an EGOT does got a long way.

— Jay Cridlin