Review: John Legend ponders ‘What’s Going On’ at the Hollywood Bowl

John Legend performs Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Many layers of reenactment were at work when John Legend paid tribute to Marvin Gaye on Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl.

The concert’s centerpiece was a complete performance of “What’s Going On,” Gaye’s groundbreaking 1971 album, which Legend previously re-created two years ago at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Even then, the R&B star was marking the 40th anniversary of a show that Gaye himself had played at the same venue in 1972.

For those keeping score, that meant Wednesday’s production was a copy of a copy of a copy.


Yet few historical documents feel as current as “What’s Going On,” Gaye’s anguished response to the turmoil of the Vietnam era. Set over shimmering, elaborately orchestrated arrangements, the singer’s lyrics seem eerily well suited to recent events.

“Can’t find no work, can’t find no job, my friend,” Gaye sings, “Money is tighter than it’s ever been.” Even more pointed is a beseeching couplet from the album’s title track: “Picket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality.”

Who could hear those words and not think of the ongoing demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo.?

Legend clearly had them in mind Wednesday, judging by the T-shirt he wore following an opening set of earlier Gaye hits such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

“Don’t shoot,” the shirt read, part of a slogan adopted by protesters in the wake of a police officer’s killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9.

And that wasn’t the concert’s only overt gesture toward the unrest in Ferguson. Calling “What’s Going On” a “landmark of social commentary,” Legend said he’d invited several poets to join him at the Bowl “to respond to Marvin Gaye’s music in a contemporary context.”

One young woman, Caitlyn Clark, seemed to vibrate with teenage indignation (and maybe a bit of teenage sanctimony) as she performed a piece that wondered why the members of “the Ferguson Police Department carry more gear than my father did in Afghanistan.”

Yet Legend himself, accompanied by an ensemble that included New York’s Dap-Kings and the L.A. Philharmonic, was operating at a significantly cooler temperature. There was little doubt of the singer’s commitment to the material or the themes at hand; indeed, his “What’s Going On” project follows an album from 2010 on which he and the Roots covered protest songs from the ’60s and ’70s.

But beyond the effective way he framed it, Legend did little to refresh Gaye’s music, or even to inhabit it as deeply as it warranted. The arrangements stuck closely to the sound of the album, and Legend sang with the same polished equanimity he brought to the sunnier songs in the concert’s first portion.

“What’s Happening Brother” threatened briefly to break into a higher gear, perhaps because the song’s cautious optimism -- “Are things really getting better like the newspaper said?” -- feels now like a cruel joke.

Legend also found energy in the searing specificity of “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” in which he echoed Gaye’s worries about “oil wasted on the oceans” and “fish full of mercury.”

But more characteristic was his rendition before the concert’s intermission of “You’re All I Need to Get By,” one of Gaye’s signature duets with Tammi Terrell. Standing onstage with retro-soul singer Sharon Jones, Legend told the crowd that for his generation, the song was indelibly linked with Method Man and Mary J. Blige, who remade “You’re All I Need to Get By” in 1995.

The introduction suggested that Legend and Jones were preparing us for some similar renovation -- an interpretation that channeled the spirit, if not the precise nature, of Gaye’s powerful music.

“But we’re doing the original,” Legend added.

And so they did.

Twitter: @mikaelwood