Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Stevie Wonder: Songs In The Key Of Life Tour

29 NOVEMBER, 2014
In the glorious star chamber that is the internet, everything is epic, every show killed, and everyone is awesome...sometimes one needs a check and a brief reset when history unspools in front of them. Working with a stacked band complete with horns, a string section, and some special guests, Stevie Wonder brought his celebration of 1976's Songs In The Key Of Life to the MGM Grand Arena in Los Vegas, one night of an all too brief run. Setting the tone right away with opener "Love's In Need Of Love Today", Stevie locked into second half improv and took it to the heavens. While deeply nostalgic, the night was not a nostalgia trip; it was about honoring, opening up, and exploring the songs, and while the show mostly followed the album template, it was anything but rote. First guests of the night were India Arie and Frederic Yonnet on "Have A Talk With God", and the string section took the spotlight on the still relevant "Village Ghetto Land". A searing take on "Contusion" kept the concise form of the LP version, rather than the sometimes almost 20 minute monsters heard on the '73/'74 tours. Back to back #1's, "Sir Duke" and "I Wish" galvanized the audience, and showed off the horn section to great effect, but interestingly, the first mass singalong, at least in my section, came after Stevie moved over to the Yamaha grand piano to essay an expansive "Knocks Me Off My Feet". Taking a brief respite from strict format, a jam introduced backup singer Keith John, (son of legendary Little Willie John), and showcased the horns and strings, as well as band MVP Greg Phillinganes and long-serving bassist Nathan Watts. Getting back on track with "Pastime Paradise", Stevie emphatically reclaimed it for his own, and set the stage for a moving "Summer Soft", featuring Buffalo, NY's own Ronnie Foster, on organ. Side two closer "Ordinary Pain" gave the backup singers, including Wonder's daughter Aisha, some love. Coming in, my big question was how the bonus EP tracks would be treated. While almost an afterthought to an already sprawling double album, they were not treated lightly, and the evening's first true sequencing left turn came with "Saturn" heralding the return of a resplendent India Arie to the stage, and a buoyant "Ebony Eyes" took us up to the intermission. And that was just the first half.

For the second half, the format was Side 3, side B of the bonus EP, then the logical conclusion of Side 4, for those of you thoroughly invested in minutiae. "Isn't She Lovely", of course, had the added gravitas of its subject, Aisha, present onstage. "Joy Inside My Tears" was prefaced with an emotional introduction, and Stevie sang it from the gut, registering it, along with "Knocks Me Off My Feet", as totally unexpected highlights of the evening. "Black Man" couldn't have been performed at a more appropriate time in our current history, and like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, reminds us that we haven't necessarily moved as far ahead as we should have. Overlooked in the polemics is that this was one of Wonder's funkiest tunes ever, and live, the horns held up their end, bolstering the tension with clipped bursts. The call and response educational section was the original LP's dropped in, as there's no topping some things. It was interesting to see Wonder mouthing along at various points of the historical roll call, and I imagine it must have been a charge to have been present to see the kids at the recording. Continuing the funk, "All Day Sucker" got a lively reading, setting the table for the instrumental "Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)", which, like "Contusion", alludes to things perhaps beyond verbalization, and is the ultimate testament to Wonder's gift that he can bring it home for us without words. Musically, it's the polar opposite of "Contusion", a harmonica duet that Stevie double tracked himself for on the original recording, but in this performance, was aided and abetted by the more than able Frederic Yonnet. I think at the time, many folks wrote off the bucolic instrumental at the tail end of a bonus 45, at the tail end of a double album, but the performance, and Yonnet's star turn force a reassessment. The home stretch of Side 4 came to life with "Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing", before giving way to yet another emotional high point, Stevie singing "If It's Magic" over the late Dorothy Ashby's original harp performance. Which brings us to the end, as those familiar with the LP know: the glory of sitting through the whole thing is rewarded by an incredible one-two punch ending of a pair of Wonder's finest songs, "As" and "Another Star", and it was here that the night achieved transcendence. I didn't think anything could top his triumphant appearance at SF's Outsidelands Festival in 2012, but if there's one lesson we've learned through the years, it's to never underestimate Stevie Wonder.

Keith John takes the spotlight
Nathan Watts leads the charge
Frederic Yonnet (left) duetting with Stevie
Stevie Wonder, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, 24 November, 2014

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