On Friday night, singer-songwriter Charlie Puth opened his set with his debut single, “Marvin Gaye.” The doo-wop throwback turns Gaye’s name into a clumsy come-on — “Let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on” — and on the anniversary of his death, one couldn’t help but feel that the soul star was rolling over in his grave.
Unlike the controversy that swirled around Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the most offensive thing about “Marvin Gaye” is how inoffensive it is — a bland rehash of a sound that has been pillaged by blue-eyed soul musicians for decades, with a breakdown that nods to hip-hop. (On the recording, that’s where Meghan Trainor adds a verse; in concert, Puth beat-boxes.) The song resembles the rest of Puth’s music in that it is pleasantly familiar and particularly forgettable.
Puth, a 24-year-old graduate of the Berklee College of Music, is a capable singer and keyboardist, but his greatest skill seems to be capturing the attention of preteens looking for a squeaky-clean, post-Justin Bieber pop idol. Like many of his pop-star peers, Puth first built a fan base on YouTube before finding an unlikely patron in Ellen DeGeneres and signing a record deal with Atlantic Records.
He released his debut studio album, “Nine Track Mind,” in January and played most of it Friday. The album is a mid-tempo exploration of the limits of banality. Puth said he wrote “Losing My Mind” while in the midst of an anxiety attack, which is fitting. The sleepy song is the audio equivalent of Xanax. Likewise, his piano ballad “Up All Night” could cure insomnia better than Ambien.
“This is the smallest room we’ve played so far, and I feel like it’s going to be my favorite,” Puth told the crowd at a sold-out U Street Music Hall, a setting as intimate as it was incongruous. The venue built its reputation with body-shaking bass and late-night dance parties, not crowds of squealing fans and their patient parents. It was a strange place to see fans holding love-proclaiming poster boards and pictures of their idol’s smiling face glued to tongue depressors, like pieces from after-school arts-and-crafts club.
Not that the kids — some so young that they sat comfortably on the hips and shoulders of their parents — noticed, even as bedtime approached. They cheered at Puth’s less-than-impressive vocal runs as their parents two-stepped to “Left Right Left” and struggled to soul-clap along with “My Gospel.” They were also genuinely surprised by the encore, as Puth performed Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again,” a No. 1 single on which he is featured.
The song, from the “Furious 7” soundtrack, is a tribute to the late Paul Walker, and while Puth’s hook is suitable for a singalong, the song isn’t exactly “Candle in the Wind,” as far as tributes go. In that case, maybe Marvin Gaye wasn’t alone.