This Thursday, February 18, “What’s Going On: The Marvin Gaye Experience” will open at The Marcus Center. This live presentation of Marvin Gaye’s timeless work, performed by Brian Owens, will cover the span of Gaye’s career and show just how relevant his music still is today. Owens is an Artist in Residence with the Grammy Award-winning St. Louis Symphony and, in anticipation of the Milwaukee run, he took the time to share a bit about the show’s origin, Marvin Gaye, and the impact his music has throughout the years.
Emily Carl: How did “The Marvin Gaye Experience” come about?
Brian Owens: It began two years ago. I wanted to do a concert here in St. Louis where I really got to dive into some of my favorite artists that influence me and the first artist that I really dug into was Marvin Gaye. I’ve done Otis Redding and Ray Charles and even Johnny Cash, but Marvin is definitely the one that I felt the strongest about if I ever did a show on the road. None of these were supposed to leave St. Louis- where I’m from- it’s just supposed to be something I do when I’m home to keep my chops up and try to be more intellectual about my approach to my craft by studying people who influence me. But Marvin just took on a life of its own and I can understand why..because it’s Marvin Gaye! His music is so transcending and it kind of supersedes and goes beyond a generational kind of thing. So that’s how it got started- one show turned into doing it again and that turned into me doing the “What’s Going On” album and it’s been cool. I learn a lot every time I perform Marvin. I learn a lot about myself.
EC: Did you grow up as a Marvin Gaye fan?
BO: What’s interesting is I grew up moreso listening to Sam Cook, but Marvin is one of those things where he’s there.. even if you don’t know that you’re intentionally listening to him, you’re listening to him. I intentionally started listening to him when I got a little bit older and when I was trying to discover my own vocal techniques, I had the realization that Marvin Gaye is the best singer of the 20th century, hands down. I don’t think there’s even a close second for me vocally. I mean. Marvin is it.
EC: How do you decide which songs to include in the show?
BO: It’s hard. I try to think of it in terms of periods. Marvin had maybe three to five different periods of music which is what I think makes him so permissive. You have early Motown stuff where you got “Hitch Hike” and “Can I Get a Witness” and “Pride and Joy”, and then you have the duets era, and then you have “What’s Going On” the album which, to me, is an era. Then you get into Marvin’s “I Want You” era and “Lets Get it On” era… so that’s typically where I stop. I try to highlight the eras as opposed to just focusing on one, because that’s a 5 hour show if you try to do the whole catalog of Marvin Gaye.
EC: Is the show set up more like a tribute or your own concert?
BO: It’s pretty open. I try to format it like it’s my own show so I’m not doing an impersonation of Marvin Gaye.. it’s not that kind of thing. Our show changes every night in terms of what we play and the vibe of it, and while we try to honor it as best as we possibly can, in honoring it I think that we are being real with the music every night. I try to do live the way I think Marvin would’ve done live.
EC: Why do you believe that “What’s Going On” the album is “one of the most socially important artistic works in the history of American music”?
BO: Because it’s still relevant today. I live in Ferguson, so hearing the “What’s Going On” album within the modern context amazes me how spot on it still is. That’s what makes real music for real people. It’s truth. And, to me, truth doesn’t have an expiration date and I think that’s why music is so powerful in “What’s Going On.” For us, it’s the truth and it’s going to be good in 15 to 20 to 40 to 50 years as it is now because it’s talking about human nature and it’s talking about the potential of what we could be and the truth of what we are… and I want that.
EC: How does it feel to be touring, singing these iconic songs by Marvin Gaye?
BO: I love it. One reason I love it is that now the way that I write is very much in that same vein in terms of messaging and the intention and music that can live and breathe outside of the record. Getting to perform Marvin Gaye gives me a real masterclass and I believe that this music needs to be shared. It doesn’t get shared enough.
EC: What do you hope the audience leaves “The Marvin Gaye Experience” feeling?
BO: Hopeful. Inspired. I think that’s the intention of the music- to give people hope. I hope people are challenged. My thing is that whatever the original intent of the music was, I hope that comes through in the performance. If we did that then I did my job. If you go away going, ‘Man, that Brian Owens is really, really good” then I probably didn’t do my job. If you go away going, “Man, Marvin Gaye was a genius”, I did my job.
“What’s Going On: The Marvin Gaye Experience” runs at The Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall from February 18-20. Tickets are available online or by calling 414-273-7206.