‘What’s Going On’ Forty Years Later

Forty years after Marvin Gaye put on an historic concert at the then-new Kennedy Center – presenting his breakthrough “What’s Going On” album before a hometown crowd on what would be called Marvin Gaye Day in D.C., they did it all over again Thursday.

John Legend took the vocals, aided by the Dap Kings, Sharon Jones and instead of a dozen or so local horns and strings, the whole of the National Symphony Orchestra.

To suite of social consciousness, alight with soulful runs and jazzy intonations, was perfectly suited for symphony. And to bring it into the here and now the concert, titled “What’s Going On …Now” brought in not hip hop artists but thoughtful young spoken word artists, each commenting eloquently and complexly to today’s world, one that could have been predicted by Gaye’s lyrics on protests, poverty, war and the ecology.

Substitute Vietnam with Afghanistan and there you go, one poet suggested (none were identified by name, either on stage or in the program).

Gaye’s full blown work was the centerpiece though, and unlike the original 1972 show, it was in order (Gaye had flipped sides and skipped “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”).

And while Gaye had played piano on the recording, he didn’t spend his time behind an instrument during the actual show. For Legend, not appearing from behind his piano was unthinkable, so that’s where he stayed, doing an admirable job reaching Gaye’s difficult vocal job, his swooping falsettos and powerful lines.

For the first half of the show, though, doing mostly Gaye’s duet hits he made with Tammi Terrell, Legend seemed out of his element if not his league. He seemed under-rehearsed, kept turning to the band (with his back to the crowd), dropped some lyrics and mostly paled next to the fireball of Sharon Jones, who, with her trusty Dap Kings, perfectly matched Terrell’s power and sweetness, carrying the bulk of their great songbook – “If I Ruled the World,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as well as a pair of their more obscure numbers together – “If This World Were Mine” and “Little Ole Boy, Little Ole Girl.”

The show began cleverly, with Legend’s version of Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” making way for Jones entering singing in the arrangement of Gladys Knight’s original version.

If Legend held his own during the “What’s Going On” portion, it got a boost when Jones joined the stage again during the final reprise of the title song, alongside the chorus of the Duke Ellington High School, the band, the orchestra, and the string of poets. When Legend first came to the school by surprise to run through the song in January, it was better than any scene “Glee” ever had:

I had fun writing about Marvin Gaye’s concert and tracking his life in the city. But the concert was even better. It will be repeated at the Kennedy Center Friday.

Heres the set list:

  • “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”
  • “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
  • “Little Ole Boy, Little Ole Girl”
  • “If This World Was Mine”
  • “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”
  • “Your Precious Love”
  • “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”
  • “You’re All I Need to Get By”
  • “What’s Going On”
  • “What’s Happening Brother”
  • “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)”
  • “Save the Children”
  • “God is Love”
  • “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”
  • “Right On”
  • “Wholy Holy”
  • “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”
  • “What’s Going On” (reprise)
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