Lost somewhat in the bounty of previously unreleased material distributed across the deluxe editions of Marvin Gaye's 1971-1981 studio albums, this performance appeared in totality on the second disc for What's Going On. Eighteen years later, newly mixed by John Morales, it gets an appropriate separate release with in-depth contextualization from Gaye biographer David Ritz. Context here is crucial, and there is a lot of it. For starters, the occasion was Washington, D.C.'s Marvin Gaye Day, the events of which culminated in the reluctantly present singer's first concert in four years. Struck with stage fright, still deeply affected by the death of duet partner Tammi Terrell, and resentful of his hometown, he took to the stage of the then-new Kennedy Center to perform the entirety of What's Going On, backed by most of the album contributors, including the Funk Brothers and the Andantes, and locally sourced musicians for strings and horns (who are barely audible at times). They had little practice, and the gig itself -- with a humble and gracious Gaye frequently commenting and directing musical director Maurice King -- is basically a rehearsal in front of a rapt and vocal audience. The star begins with a 13-minute medley of nine hits from the previous decade. The tempo on some of the hits is slowed to the point of sounding tentative, setting the tone for the run-through of Gaye's year-old masterpiece. He erroneously begins with "Right On" instead of the title song, so the second side is played first. The set's emotional peak is therefore reached early with "Wholy Holy," one of many instances where Gaye's voice sounds unaffected by years away from the stage. Almost two minutes into "Inner City Blues," Gaye decides that he wants to start over and "do it real groovy." It's not until they hit "God Is Love" that everybody is truly locked in and at full power. That makes the absence of "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," not recorded due to a holdup with switching tapes, all the more unfortunate. Rather than finish by promoting his overtly political new single, "You're the Man" -- written for and released during an election year! -- Gaye and company keep rolling through improved renditions of "Inner City Blues" and "What's Going On." That's when it sounds like a proper celebration.
AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman
Sixties Medley: That's the Way Love Is/You/I Heard It Through the Grapevine/Little Darling (I Need You)/You're All I Need to Get By/Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing/Your Precious Love/Pride and Joy/Stubborn Kind of Fellow