July 1, 2008
How can you not like Stevie Wonder? The guy just gushes happiness and joy. He smiles all the time; and his music amplifies that demeanor. Tuesday night's show, outside at Fiddlers Green, made everybody smile. He concentrated mostly on his fertile 70s hit-making days, throwing in a few from the 80s and adding some surprising covers. Mostly, he had fun.
Wonder doesn't tour very often; in fact it's been about 10 years since the last one. He's doing it right with this one. Tuesday night he appeared with a 14-piece band (counting Wonder). Besides him, he had two additional keyboard players, which seemed a little extravagant. The band also included two guitars, trumpet, alto/tenor sax, drums, two additional percussionists, bass and three vocalists (one male, two female). That's the kind of thing you can do when you command Wonder-class resources. Obviously, the band had a big sound and ranged over a vast musical territory, including rock, jazz, funk, pop, reggae and Latin.
Most of the songs were familiar to anyone who turned on a radio in the last 30 years. But Wonder rearranged many of the old chestnuts with new horn parts in some and different backing vocal arrangements in others. Chick Corea's "Spain" was the best of the covers. The band stretched out on that one and everybody got a chance to solo, including Wonder who took two, one on harmonica and the other on grand piano, where he favored chunky, percussive block chords. Although Al Jarreau has written lyrics to he tune, Tuesday night he played the instrumental version. On the two R&B gems, "Betcha By Golly Wow," a hit for the Stylistics and "Have You Seen Her?" a hit for the Chi-Lites, Wonder ran his vocals through a talk box, synthesizing his voice so heavily it was difficult to find even these familiar lyrics buried in the effects. Distorting his voice on the only lyrics of the evening that he didn't write is likely no coincidence.
A testament to Wonder's ability to write popular songs is that though he performed at least 20 of his own hits he left at least that many easily recognizable songs off the program. He would have needed an additional two hours to get to all those.
At 58 Wonder's voice sounds much like it did 30 years ago. Once or twice his throat seemed to dry out a little, but overall he retained the range and power that have been a big part of his appeal over the years. Having heard a number of aging singers in the recent past, it seems that the vocal chords can be an Achilles Heel. Certainly that's not true for all vocalists, but for some it's a problem. Not for Wonder. He stopped the singing and chatted with the audience on a number of occasions and usually spoke of peace, love and unity. He made at least a couple pleas for everyone in the United States to come together and to work for change. He did everything but come right out and say "Obama."
He also talked about his legacy. "How many people here have made love to one of my songs?" More than a few responded enthusiastically; well maybe just about everybody. "How many of you fellas have used my songs to get a little sumpthin,' sumpthin'?" He suggested some additional royalty payments. He admitted that even he has been that type of craven manipulator with his songs as he launched into "Ribbon in the Sky." He justified his action though, "After all, it's my song." Wonder also talked about his mother, who passed away two years ago. He said one of the reasons for the current tour was to thank his fans who made it possible for him to help her have a nice life.
Wonder's daughter, Aisha Morris, was one of the backing singers and she came out front with her dad to sing "I'm Going to Laugh You Right Out of My Life," a hit for Nat King Cole several decades ago. Then Wonder sang "Isn't She Lovely," the song he wrote for her when she was a baby. Wonder does many poignant, sentimental songs, but this one was a true tear-jerker for both father and daughter (and maybe a few audience members).
"Spain" has a nice Latin-jazz groove and it segued nicely into "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," a song with a similar feel. For this one, Wonder wrote a new arrangement for the horns, giving the band a Buena Vista Social Club sound. "Visions" was another nugget with a new veneer; this one had an updated backing vocal arrangement on top of which Wonder searched for truth, beauty and joy; and found them all.
Toward the end of the show a local TV personality came on the stage to introduce the winner of a contest to sing with Wonder. She sang "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and didn't do too badly, but it did have a touch of reality TV. The other low point was the inclusion of the unfortunate "I Just Called to Say I Love You." Jack Black in the movie "High Fidelity" summed up the problem with this song when he chased a middle-aged guy from the record store who was looking for that song for his daughter. Black, playing a record store worker, refused to sell the record to the guy because Stevie Wonder was a great artist who had really slipped when he put out this song. It seems that the line between a beautiful love song and pop- schlock-dreck can be a thin one sometimes, and with that song, Wonder crossed it. Last night's version was mercifully short and tossed into the middle of the real fine funk of "Superstition," which served as the finale.
Those, however, are exceedingly minor complaints. Wonder is a true master of both songwriting and soulful singing, and when those were combined last night with the large, crackerjack band, it was a rare and wonderful thing indeed.
Set list: "As," "Master Blaster (Jammin')," "Did I Hear You Say You Love Me?," "All I Do," "Knocks Me Off My Feet," "Betcha By Golly Wow," "Have You Seen Her," "Higher Ground," "Spain," "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," "Visions," "Livin' for the City," "Golden Lady," "Keep Foolin' Yourself Baby Girl," from Through the Eyes of Wonder, "I'm Going to Laugh You Right Out of My Life," "Isn't She Lovely," "Ribbon in the Sky," "Overjoyed," "My Cherie Amour," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," "Sir Duke," "I Wish," "You are the Sunshine of My Life," "Superstition," "Do I Do," "I Just Called to Say I Love You," "Superstition"