When local soul and gospel artist Brian Owens named his 2017 album Soul of Ferguson, the title served a few purposes. After Michael Brown's death in 2014, the city's name became a byword for several things — police reform, social activism, the Black Lives Matter movement — and Owens, a Ferguson native, sought to honor his hometown while telling a deeper, richer story than newspaper headlines could. If the soul of the movement that started in Ferguson still resonates five years later, Owens' album was a reminder that there is still soul and heart and faith in the people of Ferguson today.
But when it comes to Michael McDonald — the husky-voiced maestro, the unwitting patron saint of yacht rock, the secret sauce in Steely Dan and, yes, the native of north county — Owens refers to his friend, tour-mate and collaborator as "the original soul of Ferguson."
Such a plaudit is well deserved given McDonald's longevity and stylistic dexterity; he's generally considered one of the more adept and respectful white interpreters of black music, and he's got a few bona fides — duets with Patti LaBelle, samples by Nate Dogg and Warren G and a catalog of Motown covers — to prove it. Owens is relying on his relationship with McDonald for this weekend's "A Night for Life" concert at the Touhill Performing Arts Center.
The concert will be a tribute to McDonald's music, featuring performances by Owens, The Voice contestant Kennedy Holmes, jazz pianist Peter Martin, classical/jazz hybridizers the 442s and about 50 youth performers. McDonald will perform as well.
Owens says that he and McDonald have been trying to do a collaborative concert together for a few years, but this week's event is doubly special for Owens. It serves as a fundraiser for Owens' L.I.F.E. Arts nonprofit, whose mission he describes as "developing the leaders of today using the arts."
So while the music celebrates the career of a chart-topping St. Louis native, the concert has a larger purpose, according to Owens.
"The truth is, we're using you for the greater good — we're using your music to bring people together," Owens told McDonald. "Your music has been the soundtrack of people's lives for 40 years."
L.I.F.E. Arts — the anagram stands for leadership, innovation, faith and entrepreneurship — was founded in 2014 in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson. For Owens, that time of confusion turned to action, with a focus on his immediate community.
"After Mike Brown was killed, I was trying to figure out what my response should be — as a believer, as an African American male, as a Ferguson native," he says. With L.I.F.E. Arts, Owens and his partners decided to focus on helping the youth in his community by engaging their creativity while tending to their social and emotional needs, especially in times of stress and unrest.
"We have an eight-mile radius of Ferguson of where our resources can be most effective," Owens says. "You're developing people that will be the future creators of thoughts and movements — all the things that push culture." Owens' group seeks to link young creatives with business partners in the area to let their passions for music, art and film be part of a larger narrative.
To date, the students in L.I.F.E. Arts have worked with a few big cultural names in St. Louis, partnering with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Pulitzer Foundation and the Cardinals on multimedia projects.
"Ultimately we're trying to build this ecosytem where we gather together the partners necessary to serve the students in our community in a way that is holistic," Owens says. But he also notes that though the arts can serve as a bridge, it is rarely the solution to larger, deeply entrenched problems.
"It's not enough to make a soundtrack about it; we need to engage with people to bring resolution to issues," he says. "We've seen what can happen when you allow young people to be involved in problem solving."
Owens writes and performs his own original work — his next, When Love Came Down, is expected next year — but he regularly performs tributes to heroes like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Johnny Cash, all performers who have experience in both sacred and secular music. His plan to honor the music of McDonald during Sunday's show is a little different.
"For me, I have never gotten to pay tribute to someone who is a musical hero that is actually in person," Owens says. "I get to perform with him. This night is gonna be special."
Beyond Owens' own artistic and personal fulfillment, he sees Sunday's concert in much larger terms, for both his students and for his community.
"All in all, I want to encourage people to come out and experience the healing of the city and the promise of its young people," Owens says. And having McDonald, who famously sang, "You don't know me, but I'm your brother," in attendance is icing on the cake. "His music is the perfect soundtrack for that."