I've never seen Marvin Gaye in concert.
In fact, in all of the years that I can recall seeing literally hundreds of concerts — mostly here in my hometown of Seattle — I can't even recall Marvin Gaye ever playing here. Not even on one of those "Motown Night Of A 1000 Stars" type extravaganzas (although in fairness, if one of those tours ever did stop here, I probably would've been too young to remember it).
But let's get one thing straight. I do think Marvin Gaye was/is one of the best, ever.
In fact, if you catch me on the right day, I will tell you to your face that I think Gaye's classic album, What's Goin' On may just be my favorite recording of all time. I will also tell you with an equally straight face, that songs from that album like "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," and "Mercy Mercy Me" capture the political and cultural mythos of their unique time (basically late sixties/early seventies), better in their own way than even some of Bob Dylan's best songs do.
The truth is, I've always preferred Marvin Gaye as social commentator, over Marvin Gaye as the original sexy R&B "love man," — the same guy who paved the way for later versions of that model like Barry White. Although Gaye played both roles with equal brilliance — look no further than the album Let's Get It On for proof of that.
Now, on the flip side of that coin you have Marvin Gaye the live performer. Gaye's concert performances were rare events, and perhaps as evidence of that same lack of frequency, he had a reputation for being somewhat erratic on the stage. On one night, you might witness something truly magical, while on another you might see something considerably more lackadaisical.
Fortunately, on this rare one hour DVD concert — which will be re-released by Eagle Rock on Tuesday, September 18 — there is little evidence of the lackluster in this performance.
Recorded in Holland during Gaye's first ever European tour in 1976, Gaye runs through a 23 song set spanning his entire career up to that point. The songs here range from early hits like "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)," right on up through the more politically charged songs of What's Goin' On. Throughout, Gaye seems both relaxed and engaged. Early in the set, Gaye even thanks for the crowd for coming, urging them to relax and have a good time.
The only downside here comes in the form of the sound mix, which clearly could have benefited from the Digital 5.1 treatment so many other recently unearthed live performances from this period have received in their DVD releases. Gaye is backed in this performance by a full orchestra, and as a result the many instruments tend to clash against each other, resulting in an occasionally muddy sort of sound quality. Basically it's a case of too many instruments, without enough clarity.
Still, the performance is without question a keeper.
During "Let's Get It On," the female members of the audience swoon in all of the right places, as Gaye teases them by saying "it's kind of warm in here," while urging them to "get comfortable." When Marvin Gaye was at the top of his game — as he clearly is here — he had a way of connecting with his audiences like few performers have before or since.
During a medley of his early sixties hits including such songs as "Aint That Peculiar," Gaye does seem to rush it a bit though, as he heads towards the homestretch. He rushes through "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" for example. It would've been nice to hear just a bit more of that particular classic, than the minute or so he samples here.
From there, Gaye heads into a short mini-set of his more political songs. On "Inner City Blues," and especially "What's Goin' On," Gaye simply sounds incredible. I'd even swear this is the same clip I've often seen of Gaye performing "What's Goin' On" numerous times during newsreels and the like — I always wondered where that clip came from. Gaye gets even more serious and passionate as he brings it down further for "What's Happening?" and "Save The Children." Here, Marvin Gaye sings the words with such passion he even seems to get a little teary-eyed.
All in all, this is a very satisfying — and all too rare — performance from one of the all-time greats of R&B and pop music. The only thing that would make this DVD better, would be a digital sound remix more worthy of its subject.