What’s Going On: The Marvin Gaye Experience with Brian Owens LIVE! at the Grunin Center
As we find our seats on March 28, 2017 at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center of the Arts, the lights dim and we see musicians begin to take the stage with their instruments — Shaun Robinson on guitar, Alvin Quinn on bass, and Rob Woodie on drums — not to mention a horn section consisting of a tenor saxophonist and a trumpet player.
“Hi, Grunin Center!” says bassist Quinn. “How are you? We are the Deacons of Soul and we’d like to welcome you to What’s Going On: The Marvin Gaye Experience starring Brian Owens!”
Owens, a multi-talented singer-songwriter from Ferguson, Missouri, has not only been featured on the Ellen DeGeneres and Wayne Brady television shows, but he has also performed for former First Lady Michelle Obama and at the World Series.
Along with the Deacons of Soul, Owens also recently released an album, Soul of Ferguson, which features “For You,” a duet he recorded with five-time Grammy Award-winner Michael McDonald.
As the audience applauds, Owens bounds onto the stage, grabs his microphone, and opens the show with a bang. Singing a soulful and energetic rendition of Marvin Gaye’s 1965 Top Ten hit, “Ain’t That Peculiar,” the audience members chime in right off the bat singing on the song’s “Uh, uh, uh” lyric.
As Owens vocalizes, it’s hard to tell that one isn’t listening to Marvin Gaye!
Like Marvin, he’s got that soulful sound which can go from smooth to edgy seemingly at will.
And also like Marvin, his range is impressive, and he is easily able to perform the most resonant lower tones all the way up to the highest notes with his expertly controlled falsetto.
Lastly, and most importantly, like Marvin Gaye, Owens sings with emotion, allowing him to rise above the level of “entertainer” and connect with his listeners on a deeper level more aptly associated with a musical “artist.”
Following animated applause, Owens takes a seat at the piano and starts to play the famous intro chords from Gaye’s 1968 #1 hit, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.”
His slow and funky version features soulful vocals, slap bass, and a trumpet solo.
After more applause, Owens asks the audience, “How you all doin’ tonight?”
“Good!” replies the crowd.
“We are here to celebrate — in my opinion — the greatest vocal musician of all time: Marvin Gaye. Would you mind if we did some duets tonight?”
Registering universal approval, Owens introduces female vocalist, Angela Johnson, and the pair performs the well-known Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell 1968 number “You’re All I Need to Get By,” as heads nod and several audience members begin to dance in their seats.
Next up is the Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson gem, 1968’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” complete with vocals by the audience.
“Sing it like you mean it!” exclaims Owens.
Following cheers, Owens says, “Now we’ve come to the ‘love’ portion of our show. If we could stay here all night long, we’d do a lot of songs!”
At this point, accompanied only by a drum beat, Owens presents a vocal tour de force of Marvin Gaye classics including 1973’s “Distant Lover,” 1964’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” and 1976’s “I Want You.”
Soon, the distinctive wah-wah guitar which signals the beginning of Marvin Gaye’s 1973 #1 smash, “Let’s Get it On,” gets the audience cheering. On this — just one of many standout numbers of the evening — the musicians put on an impassioned performance featuring Owens’ soulful lead vocal and rock-solid accompaniment by the Deacons of Soul rhythm section.
Next up is the party song, Gaye’s 1977 #1 chart topper, “Got to Give It Up.” The infectious beat gets folks clapping and moving in their seats as they listen to Owens’ smooth falsetto lead. Shaun Robinson’s distorted guitar solo gives the arrangement an authentic roadhouse raw funk sound. Owens gets the audience singing along again when he has the ladies in the crowd chirp, “Keep on dancin’,” while the men croon, “Got to give it up.
After the audience shows what fun they had participating on that number, Owens says, “Now we’ve come to my favorite part of the show because Marvin Gaye wrote what is, for me, the greatest album of all time, What’s Going On.”
At this point, he and the band launch into a soulful rendition of the title song from Gaye’s seminal 1971 album, “What’s Going On.” Morphing into “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Right On,” Alvin Quinn’s solid bass lays down the groove as Rob Woodie’s drums keep steady time and Owens’ soulful voice washes over the audience.
Following a top-notch version of the great Gaye composition, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” Owens forgoes his microphone and uses his impressive voice to sing an acoustic reprise of “What’s Going On.” Soon, the back-up musicians — sounding more like an orchestra than a band — slowly build in dynamics from pianissimo to fortissimo.
After enormous applause, Owens says that it’s “now time to pay homage to the vehicle which allowed Marvin — originally a session drummer — to become the vocalist he became: Motown.”
Here, Owens and the band perform a classic medley of Motown hits.
First up is The Temptations’ 1965 #1 smash, “My Girl,” featuring the audience happily joining in again on vocals. Then Brian and the group segue into Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1965 Top 20 hit, “Ooo Baby Baby,” the audience still singing right along with him.
“You sound so nice!” says Brian, as he proceeds to vocally improvise over the audience’s melody.
Next up is Stevie Wonder’s 1973 Top Ten hit, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” where the crowd sings the famous “Here I am, baby” lyric and the Deacons of Soul musicians cleverly accompany them by playing a counterpoint using the instrumental introduction to Wonder’s 1976 classic, “Sir Duke.”
At the conclusion of the number, Owens receives a well-deserved standing ovation with folks yelling for “More!”
Returning to the stage, Brian says, “Marvin and I have some things in common. We are both preachers’ kids. We also both love, respect, and were influenced by the great Sam Cooke. As a result, I’d like to dedicate this next Sam Cooke song to my home town of Ferguson, Missouri — ‘A Change is Gonna Come.’”
Seated at the piano, Owens begins a poignant and soulful rendition of Cooke’s 1964 anthem.
Then, backed only by a simple guitar, bass, and drum accompaniment, he takes center stage — once again, without any microphone at all — allowing only the natural acoustics of the room to amplify his voice.
The audience is entranced by his performance, which connects with each listener on an emotional level.
Saying, “Fellas, sing it with me, now,” Owens and his back-up trio — Robinson, Quinn, and Woodie — sing a cappella four-part harmony so earnestly on the lyric, “A change is gonna come,” they make people believe it really could come true.
For their efforts, Brian and the Deacons of Soul are rewarded with yet another cheering standing ovation.
Afterwards, we exit the auditorium and make our way into the Grunin Center lobby. Here, we get a chance to chat with the star of What’s Going On: The Marvin Gaye Experience, Brian Owens.
When asked about his inspiration for creating his tribute to Gaye, Owens explains, “When I was in St. Louis, I was getting my vocal ‘chops’ together performing the songs of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and other Motown artists. It was there I decided my first tribute ought to spotlight Marvin Gaye. Little did I know that this would be the hardest — but his music really stretches me as an artist.”
We also get a chance to chat with several audience members who tell us about the performance they’ve just experienced.
Stella from Lacey says, “We were dancing in the mezzanine! Please bring Brian Owens back!
Jose from Brick calls Owens’ performance “absolutely beautiful,” going on to add, “I closed my eyes and I thought it was Marvin.”
Ginny from Sea Girt says, “It was fantastic. We were all swaying and moving in our seats. The musicians were out of this world and the female vocalist, Angela Johnson, was superb. All in all, it was a really moving experience — I felt uplifted.”
Jackie from Point Pleasant Beach agrees adding, “It was so good! And that last song — ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ — was incredible; I wish it went on longer.”
When asked if it would be possible to sum up her entire Marvin Gaye Experience in a single word, Jackie responds with a word she tells us she frequently uses to describe something amazing…
To learn more about Brian Owens and the Deacons of Soul, please go to brianowenssoul.com. For more on future concerts at Toms River’s Grunin Center of the Arts — including Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years on Apr. 22, Dr. K’s Motown Review on April 29, and The Great Rock and Roll Time Machine on May 20— please go to grunincenter.org.