‘What’s Going On’ tribute at Kennedy Center upstages Marvin Gaye’s landmark work

May 4, 2012

What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album, is a landmark. It was Motown’s first protest-music song cycle, as well as a template for the lusher, jazzier, more grown-up style that supplanted the label’s “Sound of Young America.” But even a landmark can be upstaged, which is what happened Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, site of John Legend and the National Symphony Orchestra Pops’ “What’s Going On . . . Now.”

The occasion for the 95-minute show was the 40th anniversary of Gaye’s 1972 concert at the then-new Kennedy Center. (A D.C. native, Gaye began his career here but moved on to Detroit and then Los Angeles, where he died in 1984.) Rather than reenact the 40-year-old event, the musicians performed “What’s Going On” in its entirety. First, though, Legend was joined by Sharon Jones to sing tunes Gaye recorded in the 1960s, usually with musical partner Tammi Terrell. Jones’s exemplary band, the Dap-Kings, played during both segments, joined by NSO members for the second part.

Legend did a fine job with Gaye’s material, evoking his predecessor’s smooth delivery and yearning falsetto without aping his phrasing. He was slammed to the mat, however, by Jones, a gospel-style belter who’s part of the contemporary vogue for over-athletic vocalese. Unlike Gaye and Terrell, Legend and Jones didn’t duet — they dueled.

For the evening’s main event, Legend sat at the piano, delivering such laid-back yet impassioned material as “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Want to Holler).” Conductor Steven Reineke led the NSO musicians through the album’s orchestral arrangements, which are among its weaker elements. For the concluding reprise of the title song, the stage was further crowded by members of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Show Choir, who sang with Legend and, briefly, Jones.

Legend and company mostly played the songs as they flow on the album, without breaks between them. But they were interrupted periodically by poetry-slam verse, recited by host Marc Bamuthi Joseph and five participants in the Kennedy Center’s “What’s Going On . . . Now” Media + Arts Youth Summit. The result sometimes had a TV awards-show vibe. Adding Jones, adolescent poets and a super-size string section to the music was more than even Gaye’s greatest monument could support.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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