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It's pretty tough to be cynical about Stevie Wonder. As Maura Johnson put it in her preview of Friday's United Center show, where Wonder performed his landmark 1976 double LP, Songs in the Key of Life, "The musical ambition alone is proof positive of his belief in a world where good will eventually win out." We're talking about a guy who nearly quit the biz in '75, after two consecutive Grammys for album of the year, to emigrate to Ghana and work with handicapped children. In 2009 he was designated a United Nations Messenger of Peace.
It's tough to be cynical, but easier to be anxious. In recent decades Wonder's output has slowed to a trickle—Songs in the Key of Life, which came out when he was 26, was his 18th studio album, but he's released only eight more in the 38 years since (and only three since 1990). He's 64 now. Before I got to the United Center, I wondered: What if his voice is shot? What if (knock on wood) his health is failing? I was more than ready to enjoy the show—Songs is one of the greatest achievements in the history of pop music—but I wasn't sure I'd be able to.
When Wonder spoke to the crowd, before he'd sung a note, he sounded worryingly hoarse. But his singing voice, though weathered by age, remains supple and strong, with all its old acrobatic grace and infectious enthusiasm. He didn't recast his melodies to tactfully spare himself the high notes.
And the band! Barring symphony concerts, I've never seen so much gear on a stage at once. I think I counted 32 people up there together at one point—including a ten-piece string section, six horns, two drummers, two percussionists, and as many as 14 backup singers. It did this premature codger's heart good to see every last note played by a live human, just like they did it in the old days. (It's worth mentioning that a total of 130 people contributed to Songs in the Key of Life.) The miking was so precise and the mix so detailed that even with the music at full boil I could clearly hear one of those percussionists tapping at a cymbal the size of an egg cup.
So yeah, it's safe to say I loved the hell out of the show. Though the United Center really needs to put in some bike racks.
Wonder repeatedly called Chicago his "second home," and reminded the crowd that his first hit single—"Fingertips," which dropped in May 1963, a couple weeks after his 13th birthday—was recorded live at Chicago's Regal Theater. He also credited a Chicago DJ with breaking "My Cherie Amour" six years later. (It started out titled "Oh My Marsha," but as Wonder joked, "We broke up; I changed the lyric.")
Buttering up his Chicago fans was just the beginning, though. This concert had good vibes to spare.
First, consider the personnel—among all those folks onstage were a couple of Wonder's old friends from Detroit who'd appeared on Songs in the Key of Life, keyboardist and musical director Greg Phillinganes and bassist Nathan Watts. And one of the backup singers, Aisha Morris, is Wonder's oldest daughter, born while he was working on the album. (She's been part of his band for years.) He wrote "Isn't She Lovely" about her, and you can hear her as a baby crying at the start of the track. When he played it on Friday, the onstage cameras stayed on her for half the song, and she was glowing the whole time.
Harpist Dorothy Ashby, who dueted with Wonder on "If It's Magic," died in 1986, and in a tribute to her, he sang along to her original recording while the screens to either side of the stage showed her picture.
After "Ordinary Pain," Wonder paused to address the multitude. "Do you believe that we have a gun problem?" he asked. "I love you enough to want to see everyone alive." And the governor of Missouri, he said, needs to think of every black boy as his son or nephew. "Stand if you agree," he said. "Then somebody will tell me how many people are standing."
Suffice to say it was a sentimental show. I kept misting over, and Wonder himself looked to be crying at the end of "Joy Inside My Tears."
How about the actual songs? Well, the cool stair-stepping synth lick in "Have a Talk With God" wasn't as toothy as I remembered it from the record. In fact the bizarro keyboard sounds seemed toned down in general. (I never noticed Wonder feeling for the vocal mike with his upper lip while his hands were busy with the keys, the way he does in some of the old footage I've seen. But he did have to find the right harmonica by picking each one up and blowing on it, which he turned into a bit of light comedy every time.)
I love "Sir Duke" irrationally, and Friday's version was pretty much dead-on, right down to the great sax-and-trumpet smears in the chorus—they sound like the whole horn section has a whammy bar on it. Somebody even added the fillip of siren whistle in the tiny pause after the line about Ella Fitzgerald. The song brought the crowd to its feet for the first time, despite the tragic shortage of any proper room to dance.
"I Wish" fades out on the album, so the band had to decide how to end it live—they went for a sudden offbeat stab, then silence, which I answered by throwing the horns. That's perhaps not the most appropriate gesture of approval at a Stevie Wonder show, but it's the one that comes to me naturally.
My only real complaint was with the boomy, smothering bass in "Pastime Paradise," which distracted from its full complement of 14 backup singers, who added wracked swells of wordless gospelizing to the climax. I especially appreciated the talk-box guitar on "Ebony Eyes," which emulated the effect Wonder had produced on the recording (but couldn't duplicate while singing lead).
The crowd, which had settled down after "Sir Duke," finally got to its feet again for "As." If George Jones's "He Stopped Loving Her Today" hadn't come out four years later, I'd be tempted to suggest that Wonder had deliberately written a joyous flip of its lyrics ("I'll be loving you always / Until the day is night and night becomes the day"). Everybody stayed up and kept dancing (at least as far as the fixed seating allowed) for "Another Star," which wrapped up the album material—but nobody even bothered to pretend it would be the last song of the night.
Calling himself "DJ Chik Chik Boom," Wonder led the band in snippets of five more hits, including "Do I Do" and "For Once in My Life." He had the crowd sing "My Cherie Amour" without him, and when he finally joined in, he was clearly having a ball—it was written all over his face. The actual closer? "Superstition," of course, in a scorching ten-minute jam. Wonder left the stage before it ended.
The Internet tells me that Stevie Wonder has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Three years ago, the Apollo Theater inducted him into its Apollo Legends Hall of Fame. Are there any others we can induct him into? I know he's sold something like 100 million records, which is the kind of accomplishment that can make ceremonial honors seem a little silly. I just think he should be in all the halls of fame.
I'll leave you with a few more photos from regular Reader contributor Alison Green. In keeping with the policy at this show, she had to take all her pictures in the first minute of the first song, which is why you only see India Arie in one outfit!