Photo from Lori. My close-up of the inscription.
The most moving musical experience I had this spring was seeing the Kennedy Center’s celebration of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album. The Post had a good preview of the pair of concerts, and I snagged two of the last tickets for the first night. The tickets were a little pricey, but we received much more than our money’s worth.
One of my favorite singers, John Legend, was the star of the night, but he shared the spotlight initially with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. They ran through a set of Marvin/Tammi duets that suffered from an over-amplified mix but shined when the orchestration got quiet. If I Can Build My Whole World Around You won big for me. (DCist too.) The album of the night arrived in the second set, with the National Symphony Orchestra joining the Dap-Kings. Toward the end, Jones rejoined and the kids of the Duke Ellington School’s show choir sang back-up.
Coming and going throughout the night were award-winning teen slam poets, every one of whom won over the audience with their work. And they were working. Words stacked, paced and delivered with great strength, alternating power and beauty to bring their messages best. No announcer introduced them. They simply walked on stage, and the hall quieted to listen.
The Post review said the show packed in too much and put too many people on stage, and it was probably right. At one point, there must have been more than a 100 people on stage. The orchestra and the Dap-Kings were collectively too much and too loud in the mix.
But the review also said the show had an award-show feel, and I disagreed with that take. Just as there were no introductions for the teen slam poets, there was no introduction for Legend, either. He walked out, and the show began. Even when there were the 100-plus on stage, the lack of narration made it clear we weren’t there to honor them. We and they were both there to honor the album and carry it forward.
The album as a living document, that goal of the night was well met.
The duets brought the pop introduction that Gaye himself gave listeners for years leading to What’s Going On. The young poets brought his themes to modern times and gave them a venue that in the past only belonged to the greatest long-dead composers. Legend honored the pauses and switches that make the album a great album, not just a collection of great songs. The night itself was a cumulation of a “What’s Going On… Now” campaign that got teens talking and writing remixes around the album’s ideas.
Maybe so many people shouldn’t have been up there, but you would have had a tough time trying to keep them off. The audience was there for similar reasons, to carry the album forward, through current days and into future years, and would have accepted a full march onto the stage.
On the album, in my mind, the loveliest, scariest line comes midway through, closing the alternatingly sung and spoken Save the Children. “Who’s willing to try,” asks Gaye, to “save a world that is destined to die?” He doesn’t pause the music there, segueing immediately into the next song. But later, in the album’s final track change, Gaye makes a hard break. The string-filled prayer of Wholy Holy dies down. The instant of silence strikes you first as innocent. Then come the introductory piano and chime hits, sparse. They build into the hidden but riot-ready heat of Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). “God knows where we’re headed” is that song’s last clear line before a musical breakdown and a benedictory reprise of the title theme.
The album was a challenge to its listeners. But amid all the concert noise at the Kennedy Center, the album also answered a challenge the building itself put forth, to grow opportunities and create a respected civilization. If we accepted the album as a living document, we still had time.