One of the real joys of my job is reviewing music discs and discovering new artists I might never have been exposed to otherwise. I knew next to nothing about John Legend going into his 'Live at the House of Blues' Blu-ray, and now I'm kicking myself for having waited so long. Despite all the recent acclaim the singer-songwriter has earned in the past couple of years (multiple Grammys, millions of CDs sold, the obligatory Oprah visit, etc.), somehow I just never came into contact with a single one of his songs. If you're in the same boat, I recommend picking up this disc (or one of his CDs) pronto.
John Legend has been called an heir apparent to the greats -- Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding -- and for once, the comparisons are worthy. With his respect for songcraft, intricate arrangements and a gorgeous voice, this guy's the real deal. (Not to mention those good looks, which I'm sure haven't hurt.) But what impresses most is that he never oversells a song. I suppose it is sad to say in this day of manufactured pop stars and "artists" known more for controversy than their music, that a great tune that's well performed now seems like a novelty. Legend almost has a non-image, and doesn't need to resort to anything but talent to get his music across. When was the last time that modern pop music has been restrained?
Having spent several years prior to his solo success as a session musician and artist-for-hire, Legend was already a pro before even ever stepped foot on his own concert stage. 'Live at the House of Blues' is a very straightforward show, but Legend is able to hold our attention, sometimes even rapturously, simply by sitting behind his piano and singing. It's the mark of a true artist -- one who can captive just with their phrasing and musicianship, without any pyrotechnics. Though I generally tend to not enjoy club shows on video versus larger arena extravaganzas, this is a rare exception. I suspect Legend's true talents are in creating and maintaining a connection in a more intimate setting, an appeal that would get lost in large-sized venues.
A bit less successful for me are a couple of guest appearances. Kayne West shows up to help out on "Number One," while Snoop Dogg lends vocals to what is perhaps the most aggressive track in the set, "I Can Change." Though West at least offers a sense of musicianship and playful riffing with Legend, I am not really a fan of Snoop's comical (almost campy) delivery. But no matter -- these stylistic detours are mere harmless distractions from the real star of the show. Chalk me up as another new convert to the House of Legend.
The track list includes: 01. Intro / 02. Get Lifted / 03. Alright / 04. She Don't Have to Know / 05. Number One / 06. Do It Again / 07. Live It Up / 08. Medley / 09. Selfish / 10. I Can Change / 11. Used To Love You / 12. Again / 13. Ordinary People / 14. So High / 15. Stay With You / 16. Refuge
As Sony BMG's very first Blu-ray music release (this disc first hit shelves back in October of '06), the distributor really needed to hit it out of the park with 'John Legend: Live at the House of Blues' to inspire confidence in the Blu-ray concert disc genre, and they easily rose to the challenge. Captured with HD cameras, the show is presented in 1080i/MPEG-2 video, and it looks great.
'Live at the House of Blues' is typical of shot-on-HD live performances. The "source" is pristine, of course, with pitch-perfect blacks and excellent contrast. As Legend does not rely on a huge light show, the presentation has a realistic and calm look, with no harsh contrast or blown-out highs amid dancing strobe lights, etc. Colors are very vivid, especially the use of some heavy red lights on a couple of songs, and the more low-key blues and purples that bathe the background band (make no mistake, Legend is the star here and the show's designers make sure we know that). There is also little in the way of apparent compression artifacts or macroblocking. If you've ever seen an HD concert on television, you know that the biggest drawback to over-the-air HD are bandwidth issues, and the lack thereof on prerecorded HD is one of Blu-ray's biggest assets. Only some of the darkest areas of the image (usually when there are low lights on a performer or the bare stage set) can reveal a little bit of noise, but it's hardly distracting. Overall, 'Live at the House of Blues' is a first-rate video presentation.
So far, Sony BMG has supported both uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks (at 640kpbs) on all of its music releases, and 'John Legend: Live at the House of Blues' is no exception. The PCM track in particular is stellar, with an excellent mix that showcases the music front and center, and doesn't overdo it.
This one is actually a pretty simple soundtrack. The crowd noise is not overbearing -- the House of Blues barely fits a thousand at most -- so the mix is largely focused to the front. Legend's style of music doesn't really suit itself to ping-pong surrounds anyway. But the technical purity of the PCM track is wonderful. His piano and voice come through with great richness and warmth. I could feel even small vibrations from the bass guitar through my subwoofer. And the realy brass shines, with clean high-end that never distorts or sounds shrill. This is some of the most pleasing, smooth and silky pop-jazz you're going to hear on Blu-ray, likely into the foreseeable future. Just terrific.
'John Legend: Live at the House of Blues' comes with a pretty slim number of extras, even for a music release. But the meager supplements mirror those found on the standard-def DVD release, so at least nothing is lost for those contemplating an upgrade. In fact, there are even some Blu-ray exclusives (see below).
The only extras are a music video for Legend's single "So High," plus a short 8-minute "The Making of 'So High'" featurette. Nothing really exciting here, but it's a fine-enough music video. The material is presented in decent quality as well, framed at 4:3 full screen and 480i video.
'John Legend: Live at the House of Blues' captures an exciting artist on the cusp of major stardom. I know that may sound like cheesy record company hyperbole, but in Legend's case, it's true. I knew little about his music going in to this review, but I came out a major fan. Sony BMG has put together a nice Blu-ray release, with very solid video and audio, and at least a few extras, including some blu-ray exclusive alternate songs. This one is well worth picking up for both existing Legend fans and the uninitiated.