Stevie Wonder Austin City Limits Music Festival Bud Light Stage, Zilker Park, Austin September 17, 2011
Stevie Wonder says we're all part of the same family. Saturday night at Austin City Limits, he had about 45,000 (we're guessing) Jesus children of America in the palms of his well-exercised hands. However many people it was, Wonder's audience took up the radia of the Google+ stage hundreds of yards away, as well as the hordes closer into his own Bud Light Stage.
Wonder came onstage gradually, stealthily emerging with a keytar as his band - which was a small orchestra, really - warmed up and then worked over a cheerful vamp that was part funk lick, part nursery rhyme, and eventually resolved into Wonder's old Motown pal Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)."
One of the most gifted musicians on the planet left little doubt that he was mostly making it up as he went along. "What's the second verse?" he wondered out loud in the opener, asked "What key was that in?" after "Jammin' (Master Blaster)" a couple of songs later, and confessed "I don't know all the words, but we'll work it out" before a cover of Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" that would have given Quincy Jones goosebumps.
Stevie was into it. By the second song, "My Eyes Don't Cry," he was prone on the stage, humping - for lack of a better word - his instrument. Eventually he sat down and became conductor of the great funk symphony that took up the first part of the set, each song a different movement showcasing a different part of the orchestra: Congas and timbales on "My Eyes," guitars on "The Way You Make Me Feel," the horns and four-piece backup vocal crew on "Higher Ground."
He's also a talkative dude, and very fond of leading mass singalongs like the world's coolest choir director. In their fifth, sixth or seventh minute, many songs spiraled into Wonder either telling the crowd what was on his mind - lots of talk about how we're all in this together, and need to act like it, or how Barack Obama needs a break from all the "bullshit" he's been dealing with. Or he'd introduce something like "Living for the City" with "I never want to have to write this song again."
Other times Wonder would urge the audience to join in the lyrics, take over, or back him up. Most of the time, they didn't need much prompting. The expressions Rocks Off saw during the Jackson cover, when we were relatively close up front, near the soundboard, were about the nearest to pure joy we've ever seen (and felt) at any musical performance, anywhere.
It did seem to falter once, during "Do I Do," but once Wonder seemed to realize it, he steered the band into "For Once In My Life," breaking out the sweet harmonica for the first time, and everyone was all smiles again.
That first funk barrage was followed by a mini-suite of solo jazz ballads - "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)," "Ribbon In the Sky" - as Rocks Off began moving from the soundboard area to the periphery of the crowd, which took several minutes. Here perhaps people weren't paying as close attention; it was more like the background music to a party than a live performance.
But boy did they snap back to attention when the band hit "Signed, Sealed Delivered." One of Wonder's earliest Motown hits touched off one singalong/dance party after another: "Sir Duke," "I Wish," "Do I Do" - even with the botched crowd participation, it was still pretty great - "For Once In My Life," "My Cherie Amour" and, yes, "I Just Called To Say I Love You."
Then he drew a curveball, asking the audience to indulge him in some new material- interesting new material. Inspired by the less-than-pleasant state of current affairs, he said (and we're paraphrasing) Beyonce had the right idea, girls really do run the world, and maybe men wouldn't fight so much if the ladies withheld the "na-na."
Musically he expressed this with a "White Rabbit"-type tune set to a hip-hop pulse. It was martial and exotic, not least the Arabesque vocalizing Wonder did in the choruses. Then he dropped the hammer in the form of "Superstition," which had everyone dancing in the hinterlands, including one woman swinging a baby around in a manner that looked somewhat less than safe, but Rocks Off didn't hear the kid complaining either.
After introducing his band, which took several minutes, Wonder started up the smoky-jazz standard "Fever," and Rocks Off began the long march back to the media area to collect our things. As we were breaking down and zipping up - it closes at 10 p.m. Sharp - from far away we could hear the initial stirrings of "As," Wonder again going after his electric keyboard in short, sharp bursts - now, as always, forever jammin'.
Personal Bias: It's Stevie freakin' Wonder.
The Crowd: The only more accurate representation of current U.S. demographics than Saturday's crowd is probably an official U.S. Census report.
Overheard In the Crowd: Lots of singing along. During those ballads, we walked by several couples - or hell, they could have been people who just met for all we know - dancing, making out or otherwise enjoying themselves and each other.
Random Notebook Dump: Up front by the soundboard, no less than three people asked us why we were taking notes. One guy nearby kept swinging around this thing that was like a glowing plastic flail, or a cat-o'-nine-tails for ravers. It caught us across the face at least twice.
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SET LIST Via the Austin American-Statesman's Austin Music Source blog:
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) My Eyes Don't Cry Master Blaster (Jammin') The Way You Make Me Feel Higher Ground Living For The City Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever) Ribbon In The Sky Overjoyed Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours) Sir Duke I Wish I Do I Do For Once In My Life My Cherie Amour I Just Called To Say I Love You Check On Your Love (new; working title) Superstition Isn't She Lovely (chorus and verse) Fever (snippet) As