Music

Rock in Rio: On the scene for Joss Stone, John Legend and Bruno Mars

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Joss Stone performs at Rock in Rio USA 2015
Photo: Fred Morledge

Joss Stone

While it’s been some time since Joss Stone has performed for a Vegas audience, she’s no stranger to Rock in Rio, having performed multiple times at the global festivals. Saturday night, in her signature barefoot fashion, the soul songstress treated both Rock in Rio and Las Vegas to a whole lot of new music off her upcoming Water for Your Soul album, set for release this summer.

Kicking it off with “You Had Me” off 2004’s Mind Body & Soul, Stone routinely blended new material (“Molly Town,” “Love Me,” “Harry’s Symphony”) with fan favorites (“Right to Be Wrong,” “Super Duper Love”), and Stone was perfectly on-point vocally, belting it all out with her powerhouse pipes. She growled out a cover of Jay Hawkins’ gritty “I Put A Spell On You,” a song perfectly suited for her voice and a standout performance—for both Stone’s set and Rock in Rio’s Pop Weekend at large.

And at 28 years old, the soulful singer also has stage presence beyond her years. In a flowing blue and white dress, she captivated the audience with her charming stage banter and really worked the stage between songs, all while maintaining an obvious chemistry with the solid musicians backing her. Stone’s set was fun and flirty while being musically sound and obviously very rehearsed, which made her return to a Vegas stage such a treat to watch.

2015 Rock in Rio USA Day 4 featured Bruno Mars, John Legend, pictured here, Empire of the Sun, Joss Stone and more Saturday, May 16, 2015, at MGM Resorts Festival Grounds.

2015 Rock in Rio USA Day 4 featured Bruno Mars, John Legend, pictured here, Empire of the Sun, Joss Stone and more Saturday, May 16, 2015, at MGM Resorts Festival Grounds.

John Legend

John Legend might have been a replacement act for Sam Smith, moving to the festival’s larger stage after the British sensation’s last-minute cancellation, but his Saturday night set made it very clear he’s Rock in Rio main-stage material.

For just over an hour, the R&B artist churned out his grooving soul hits and powerful ballads, often tickling the ivories while showcasing his smooth, soulful tenor. Unlike Smith, Legend has more than a decade of discography to pull from—and pull from it he did. While a number of tracks performed were off his most-recent 2013 Love in the Future album (“Caught Up,” “The Beginning,” “Made To Love”), Legend sprinkled in past hits (a grooving “Green Light,” disco-y favorite “Save Room”) and covers like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and, yes, even Sam Smith’s “Lay Me Down.” The nod to the performer was one of the set highlights, with Legend’s soulful, vulnerable tenor rising to superior falsetto throughout the exposed piece.

And even though Legend was serenading a sea of thousands, there still was an element of intimacy. Legend purely performed his loungey love songs—there was no grandiose production value, no full choir behind him during set-closer “Glory” (just two supremely talented backup vocalists), no surprise cameo from Andre 3000 during “Green Light” (because: music festivals)—and the crowd ate every minute of it up, especially apparent during the audience-wide singalong to “All of Me.” Saturday night Legend proved not only that he was a worthy replacement for the much-hyped Sam Smith, he should have been invited there to begin with.

2015 Rock in Rio USA Day 4 featured Bruno Mars, John Legend, Empire of the Sun, Joss Stone and more Saturday, May 16, 2015, at MGM Resorts Festival Grounds.

2015 Rock in Rio USA Day 4 featured Bruno Mars, John Legend, Empire of the Sun, Joss Stone and more Saturday, May 16, 2015, at MGM Resorts Festival Grounds.

Bruno Mars

I thought it was a little strange that a recent Vegas regular would also headline the Strip’s first major music festival when Rock in Rio announced its lineup, but then I considered that said headliner is the top-of-his-game Bruno Mars.

And Saturday night he didn’t disappoint, playing to a massive throng of festivalgoers around midnight—hours after Rock in Rio opened its doors early that afternoon. The pop sensation doesn’t have the extensive catalog the other festival headliners (No Doubt, Metallica, Taylor Swift) were armed with, but it’s a substantial one nonetheless, and Bruno churned out his hits, from “Treasure” and “Marry You” to “Grenade” and “Locked Out of Heaven.”

Mars didn’t engage with the audience too much, but that might’ve been because he was too busy busting moves alongside his backing band, The Hooligans. Performing choreographed dance routines with horns in hand, the musicians’ footwork was as on-point as their sound—basically, watching these guys is a whole lot of fun. But what may have been most impressive was Bruno’s performance stamina, as he didn’t show any sign of slowing down throughout and during set closer “Just the Way You Are,” which really showcased his vocal chops. And after a rather extensive wait, he returned to give the crowd more with a spirited performance of Mark Ronson collabo “Uptown Funk,” inspiring a massive, Strip-side dance party. And it didn’t end there, as Mars closed the two-song encore with the anthemic “Gorilla.” What do they say about “too much of a good thing” again? Oh yeah, it doesn’t exist.

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