John Legend Brings Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' to Hollywood Bowl

John Legend performs at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

John Legend performs onstage during the 2014 Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 18, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings join in paying homage to Marvin Gaye's landmark album.

"Trigger-happy policing": That line from Marvin Gaye's 1971 hit "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" still speaks volumes -- especially in the wake of the ongoing racial tension in Ferguson, Mo. And John Legend also silently spoke volumes Wednesday night when he stood onstage at the Hollywood Bowl in white slacks and jacket accessorized by a black T-shirt emblazoned with two words in white: "Don't Shoot."

Ron Stephens II

Legend was on hand to re-create Gaye's landmark album, What's Going On. Aiding him were Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The same talented crew, with the National Symphony Orchestra, premiered the same production in 2012 at the Kennedy Center to mark the 40thanniversary of Gaye's 1972 performance of his seminal album at the Washington, D.C., venue.

Legend told Marvin Gaye III and other members of the Gaye family, "We're going to honor your father right tonight." And they did.

The performance struck several chords among the predominantly baby-boomer audience. The textured musicianship and artistry of Legend, the Dap-Kings and the L.A. Phil were a visceral reminder of Gaye's genius both musically and lyrically. And each rendering of the album's nine songs sadly and powerfully underscored just how far we haven't progressed from the Vietnam era that sparked Gaye's prescient social commentary. Some 40-plus years after the album's 1971 release, we're still dealing with war, economic uncertainty, ecology concerns, drug issues and racial turmoil. And still asking the same question: What's going on?

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Legend's emotional fervor, especially on the title track, "Save the Children" and "Inner City Blues," was reinforced by equally emotional and thought-provoking spoken-word presentations by a multi-ethnic rainbow of six poets. "I asked these young artists," said Legend, " to speak to Marvin Gaye in contemporary" form. Lines like "where the Ferguson Police Department carry more gear than my father did in Afghanistan" in one poem drew standing ovations and applause from the Bowl audience.

The two-hour set opened with Jones and Legend performing many of the signature duets that comprise the Gaye catalog. Jones' full-bodied, raw vocals were the perfect complement to Legend's smooth tenor on such songs as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Your Precious Love" and "You're All I Need to Get By."


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