Target Center, Minneapolis
Sunday, March 29, 2015
Stevie Wonder was in no rush. It had been 27 years since he'd last performed in the Twin Cities, after all, and anyway we were gonna be here all night -- or at least till nearly midnight. Guided by R&B singer India.Arie (a woman of many dazzling outfits, as we would come to learn over the next three hours), the 64-year-old singer arrived onstage nearly a half-hour behind schedule. And still, he took the time to speak at length about the importance of love and to inveigh against hatred, which he called a way of "blocking your blessing" from God.
Probably no other living musician has the grace and moral authority to talk that way without coming off as a cornball or a blowhard. Yet Wonder's invocation was not just touching -- it was an ideal introduction to "Love's in Need of Love Today," the opening track from his 1976 double-LP Songs in the Key of Life, which he was in town to play in its entirety. (Including each of the four songs from the bonus seven-inch EP that accompanied the album's original release.)
Like that best-selling classic recording itself, the live performance didn't simply justify its excesses but rendered them essential, expressing the star's boundless creativity and insisting that an inexhaustible abundance of joy exists in the world for anyone willing to seek it.
Yes, it was a big show. Wonder was supported by more than 30 musicians, including 10-piece string section featuring local players and conducted by longtime associate Greg Phillinganes. The strings carried the day on "Village Ghetto Land" and "Pastime Paradise," but Wonder also insisted on using them as more than a mere aural backdrop. He jammed with one violinist, then offered up an improvised vocal phrase for reinterpretation by the full section.
Similarly, the six back-up vocalists weren't there as a mere crutch for an aging singer (whose voice, in fact, remained strong and supple over the long haul), but as musical collaborators. During "Knocks Me Off My Feet," Wonder challenged individual singers to match his phrasing, and got snippets of the Motown oldie "Who's Lovin' You" and En Vogue's "Hold On" in response. "They don't just sound good," Wonder boasted. "They sound goot, with a 't.'"
Most of the hits came early on, with the irrepressible tribute to jazz greats "Sir Duke" rolling into the funky and nostalgic "I Wish." But as if recognizing that a performance favoring album cuts over beloved singles required extra care, Wonder reworked each song into a set piece. He dedicated "If It's Magic" to the late harpist Dorothy Ashby, singing over the original recording she played on as classy black-and-white photos of her were protected on the screen. And there was plenty of straight-up funk: The sleek fusion number "Contusion" was giddily overstuffed with guitar flash and percussion, and the multicultural history primer "Black Man" grooved long and hard until its lesson was learned.
Wonder was surrounded by keyboards: an electric piano and clavinet to his front, baby grand to his side. A more rickety barroom piano was brought out for the rollicking "Ebony Eyes," and for "Ngiculela - Es Una Historia - I Am Singing," he moved to harpejji, an electric guitar-keyboard hybrid that didn't exist in 1976. He expanded that tune to take in the Impressions' "People Get Ready," the Champs' "Tequila," and Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel," as well as a harsh instruction for "all the haters in the world" -- "Get your shit together."
Stevie's got jokes too. Some are about his eyesight, of course. He recalled a cloudy day in the '70s and, sensing audience disbelief, responded "I know when it's cloudy. I'm not that blind." Returning onstage after an intermission, he asked "So what do we do now?" and lamented his inability to finish a fine vegan meal backstage. If he had, he warned us, the next song would be "Isn't She" - and here he let loose a belch almost as impressive as the version of the song that followed, which featured at least a half-dozen verses of harmonica improvisation. Wonder's harmonica tone remains an unrivaled pleasure, suggesting how the blues might have sounded in a perfect world, where their invention hadn't have required centuries of human misery.
"We did it!" Wonder shouted after Songs' final track, the hot Latin jam "Another Star." Rather than leaving the stage before his encore, he rechristened himself DJ Tick Tick Bang and encouraged us to rap along to a recording of Slick Rick's "Children's Story," before teasing us with a few of his own hits. His closing number, "Superstition," seemed both to last forever and to end too soon. As with the rest of the performance, it was the work of a man who demands a lot from his music, and who encourages us to do likewise.
Critic's bias: I did an experiment. When I sat perfectly still, Stevie sounded great. When I danced, he sounded twice as great. If you only stood during the hits (as too many in attendance did) and chilled through less familiar funk workouts, you were only cheating yourself.
The crowd: Skewing middle-aged and up, as you might expect with an older artist, and with a healthier racial mix than many arena shows, as you might expect with an artist whose appeal is so broad.
Love's in Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God
Village Ghetto Land
Knocks Me Off My Feet
String section jamming
Isn't She Lovely
Joy Inside My Tears
All Day Sucker
Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)
Ngiculela - Es Una Historia - I Am Singing
People Get Ready (Impressions cover)
Tequila (Champs cover)
The Way You Make Me Feel (Michael Jackson cover)
If It's Magic
"DJ Tick Tick Boom" set:
Children's Story (Slick Rick song)
Boogie On, Reggae Woman
Part Time Lover
Livin' for the City
Medley: Higher Ground/ Do I Do
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