The following is a dispatch from San Francisco's Outside Lands Festival from our VVM Bay Area sister paper, SF Weekly. -- ed.
Photos by Christopher Victorio
Stevie Wonder, in theory, is an American artistic treasure. He's more than our Beatles or Rolling Stones; he's our Dickens or Dalí: A figure of impassable recognition, discussion, talent, love, and national pride. In theory.
In practice, however, Stevie Wonder is an experience.
Less than three minutes after Stevie Wonder takes the main stage on the final night of San Francisco's Outside Lands Festival, keytar in hand and that beaming, always-loving smile of his worn proudly, he decides that it's time for the first singalong of the night.
It was one of many. Where other musicians would wait for the middle of their set to lead the crowd in singing, when the School of Wonder is in session (as he calls it) you're not allowed to simply watch.
The School of Wonder doesn't just force the crowd to sing and dance along, there's a message, too. That comes about four minutes into the first song, and it's a message of universal love, appreciation for one's own fortune, the end of racism and hatred, the acceptance of all, giving to the less fortunate, and unity as a nation supporting President Barack Obama ("We gotta be together as a nation for real... not talk a buncha bull," he says).
At first, the San Francisco crowd greets the political portion of the School of Wonder much more warmly than the participation portion. That is, the crowd hasn't quite realized the extent to which tonight's headmaster will make sure that they sing and dance and get the entire Stevie Wonder experience.
He isn't here simply to entertain us, but to make sure we're entertained, full of his universal love that is his gospel to spread.
And spread it does. His own songs are part of the New American Songbook, and his cover selections are big a part of who Stevie Wonder is. His Motown selections are, of course, a nod to his time at that legendary label. His other cover selection, "The Way You Make Me Feel," is a dedication to his friend Michael Jackson.
Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do" comes with a story about listening to the song as a kid. For a legendary presence like Wonder, songs that mark different eras and people in his life are one and the same as the undisputed classics of New American Songbook.
In the School of Wonder, we don't sing the Americana of "Oh Susanna" and "Home on the Range," but "My Girl" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)."
If the San Francisco crowd was its usual reticent self for the first singalong, the reluctance is all gone by the end of the first quarter of the set, when Wonder leads the crowd in singing a verse of "Imagine." After that, we get it. When he says sing, you sing. If you know the words, you sing. And if you aren't dancing -- well, who isn't dancing?
Stevie Wonder himself is sweet, full of love, indisputably virtuosic, and somehow completely human. He scolds the audience for talking during a slower moment of his set, and then puts on a smirk that assures the scoldees that his universal and unconditional love still applies.
He pours heaps of praise on his children the only way a father can, before singing a song written for his daughter Aisha ("Isn't She Lovely"), who sings background vocals in his band. The most human moment comes just after, as he first praises the joy of having children, then pauses and says winkingly, "and what a wonderful way to have them!"
This, of course turns into another singalong, as he leads everyone in a quick chorus of "making children is good good good," beaming over the newest lesson in the School of Wonder.
The most poignant of the political lessons comes as the introduction to "Living for the City," about the difficulties of moving up in world, or even surviving, as a poor man, facing a cold, cruel, and racist America. Here, Wonder lets the bass throb for just a moment and cuts it off, saying "We can never ever let it get like this in America again."
For those who never knew the world of that song, it hits deep.
The most powerful singalong comes at the end, as an encore. Wonder emerges to triumphant cheers from the crowd. It's graduation time. He wants to play a Beatles song, but can't remember how it goes, and hopes that the crowd can help. He hums a bit to himself, then calls out to his band, "E minor! A! C! G!"
Suddenly they all start playing -- it's "She Loves You," but no one knows any more words than Stevie. He shuts it down, and picks a song everybody knows: "My Girl." Here he directs, without singing a single word. And there on the Polo Fields, tens of thousands of people let the American treasure know that he's taught us well.
San Francisco sings, "I've got sunshine, on a cloudy day."
School of Wonder Master Class: He's still learning how to play completely new musical instruments. He used a Marcodi Harpejji, a 24-string tapping instrument for a blues jam of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do," though he only first saw the instrument in January.
The Band: Turns on a dime. One of the tightest this side of the JBs.
The Highlight: Just before the last chorus of the unsurpassable "Superstition," Wonder shouts "Everybody scream!" And we do.
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) [Marvin Gaye cover] Master Blaster (Jammin') Higher Ground The Way You Make Me Feel [Michael Jackson cover] I Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer Overjoyed Imagine Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing Sir Duke I Wish Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours) My Cherie Amour Living For the City I Just Called To Say I Love You Baby What You Want Me To Do [Jimmy Reed cover] Superstition Isn't She Lovely As Happy Birthday
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She Loves You [Beatles cover] My Girl [Temptations cover]