For Almost Three Hours, the World Was Stevie Wonder's
Photos by Jack Gorman
Stevie Wonder Toyota Center March 20, 2015
Think about the running order on a few of your favorite albums, and consider the last song. Even on some of the biggest albums of all time, it's almost always an afterthought or throwaway. Though it's not unusual for artists to use it as a closing statement of some kind, it's virtually never a single -- Adele's "Someone Like You" being the exception from this decade that proves the rule -- and unless it's "When the Levee Breaks" or something, it's almost guaranteed to make for a lousy live finale.
So as the "full album" concert trend has really taken hold in the past half-decade or so, most artists skirt the issue by performing a second set of choice catalog cuts -- all the other songs fans expect to hear. But when it's a double album whose running time blows well past the 90-minute mark, and one of the 20th century's most beloved pieces of music to boot, it's a little trickier.
That's Stevie Wonder's Songs In the Key of Life, and it would take almost until midnight Friday to bring the "live adaptation" of his 1976 masterpiece to a climax. But if there's anything the 64-year-old legend's multiplatinum multiple Grammy winner -- originally released in the fall of 1976 -- has to teach us today, it's that the journey can be as satisfying as the destination.
Wonder and daughter Aisha Morris
Escorted by his daughter/backup singer Aisha Morris, Wonder didn't appear onstage at Toyota Center until almost 9 p.m. He explained that one of his band members had been found unresponsive in his hotel room earlier in the day, and although signs that he would pull through were encouraging, it was still a shocking way to open the show. It drew more than a few gasps from the full arena crowd and made Wonder's subsequent introduction to "Love's In Need of Love Today" take on that much more weight.
Wonder was clad in all black, including a tunic that made him appear almost clerical, an appropriate look given the heavily spiritual tone of the evening. Echoed softly by most of the crowd, "Love's" acted as almost an invocation before "Have a Talk With God" brought Wonder's message into even sharper focus. It also introduced a backbone of sturdy funk from the small army of musicians onstage, including a complement of local string players that made a stirring addition to the urban requiem "Village Ghetto Land."
The rest of the orchestra -- six horns, a few guitars, a trio of drummers and keyboardists apiece, some dozen backup singers under the baton of band director Greg Phillinganes -- finally got its chance to warm up on "Contusion," a flurry of sizzling jazz-fusion guitar and electric piano that was also one of the few songs Friday that dated itself to the mid-'70s. Not so with "Sir Duke," steered by the serpentine horn parts that had the whole crowd up and dancing almost involuntarily. You could feel it all over all right, just like when Wonder's linebacker-like longtime bassist Nathan Watts practically carried the relentless "I Wish" over the finish line all by himself.
With Friday's band director, Greg Phillinganes (left)
At that point an atmosphere of pure joy hung in the arena, making it a perfect time to downshift into one of the sweetest and most low-key moments on the album, "Knocks Me Off My Feet." Songs is such a tour de force, one often possessed by such beyond-its-years wisdom, that it's all too easy to forget that Wonder was between 24 and 26 when he made it. But with that song, he can still call up that lovestruck innocence most of us felt at some point in our mid-twenties.
Heartbreak too, because not long afterward came the bittersweet contours of "Summer Soft." We weren't even at intermission yet, and Wonder had already taken around the entire spectrum of human emotion; the only thing left was to do another lap.
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With a total lack of lasers, dancers, short films or any other visual effects outside some serious mood lighting (heavy on purples, blues and reds), the show felt much more like a symphonic performance featuring Stevie Wonder than a contemporary pop concert. From here on out the songs grew longer and the solos more expansive, starting with Wonder's extended harmonica outro on "Isn't She Lovely." "Joy Inside My Tears" brought on such a wave of emotion that much of the audience stood and applauded.
"Black Man" spurred more socially conscious jazz-funk, and "All Day Sun" more than a few psychedelic fireworks. It's doubtful that anyone was expecting Wonder to break into "Tequila," but he did. Finally, after the singers had another spotlight moment with "As," and Wonder introduced all the players during the pseudo-disco pulse of "Another Star" (another rare '70s flashback), it was time to start wondering what he might do about that encore.
It turned out to a bit that, even after more than two and a half hours, was still pretty funny. Wonder played a new song that showed off his Van Cliburn skills, "When the World Began," before (re)introducing himself as "DJ Tick Tick Boom." While cracking up the room with lines like "I can jam all night if the money's right," he made double sure the audience knew how to pronounce it correctly. Then, and only then, he proceeded to tease a half-dozen of his better-known songs -- "Part Time Lover," "For Once In My Life," "Living For the City" -- before finally dropping "Superstition."
It killed. Cut and print. Now that's how you close a nearly three-hour show.
Personal Bias: Proud member, Jesus children of America.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I wonder what it's like when the Rockets play."
The Crowd: Mature. Multicultural.
Random Notebook Dump: A couple two or three rows down slow-danced during "Knocks Me Off My Feet." Awwww.
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