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Stevie Wonder at Pepsi Center

Geoff Anderson By

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Stevie Wonder
Pepsi Center
Denver, CO
March 17, 2015

Is there anybody that doesn't like Stevie Wonder? Go ahead, I dare you, tell me how you don't like Stevie Wonder. Then go chase those kids off your lawn.

For the legion of Stevie Wonder fans, it's fortunate that he goes out on the road every once in a while; maybe not frequently, but occasionally is much better than nothing. On the current tour, Wonder is performing his 1976 double album, Songs in the Key of Life from start to finish. Songs in the Key of Life was one of Wonder's biggest selling albums during a career of big selling albums. It was also one of the most critically acclaimed. It was a two record set with a 7 inch EP with 4 more songs for a total of 21 tunes. As with most Wonder albums, it was full of hits and even more songs that, while perhaps not "hits," still enjoyed significant airplay on many different formats of late '70s radio. The result is that even casual Wonder fans know most of the songs.

However, the album, and therefore, the concert Tuesday night started with some slower and more obscure songs, "Love's in Need of Love Today," "Have a Talk with God" and "Village Ghetto Land." Those were followed by an instrumental, "Contusion." It wasn't until the back to back hits, "Sir Duke" and "I Wish" that the crowd started to jump and shout, or at least sing along.

Wonder has made a major production of this Key of Life tour. Tuesday night's show featured over 40 musicians. He had 2 guitarists, 2 trap drummers, 2 percussionists, 6 horns (3 saxophones, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone), three keyboardists (besides himself), a harmonica player (besides himself), usually 6 backing vocalists, but sometimes as many as 14, a 10 piece string section and a single bassist.

Obviously, an outfit of this size required certain stipulations and considerations; mainly: organization. Greg Phillinganes, a long-time Wonder collaborator, acted as on-stage musical director, coordinating and conducting the string section as well as other band members at times. He also doubled on keyboards on occasion. Despite the obvious need for structure and pre-planning, much of the evening still had a loose and sometimes improvisational feel to it. For example, Wonder called off two tunes shortly after they began, "Knocks Me off My Feet" and "Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)." On the first, some feedback crept into the mix so he stopped and when he started again a moment later, the sound was fine. On the second, he confessed he was "messin' up" his harmonica part. It's not often you hear that sort of thing in a major production show. On his second take, he nailed it.

But certainly the biggest impromptu moment and by far and away the biggest surprise of the evening was the guest appearance of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. The two had played an acoustic piano duet concert the same evening only a few blocks away. Wonder's three and a half hour concert lasted longer than theirs, so they had time to get to the Pepsi Center and come on stage for the second to last Key of Life tune, "As." Perhaps coincidentally (or maybe not), Hancock had played on the original album version of that tune 39 years ago. Probably because of that, he jumped on a synthesizer and added some funky stuff throughout the entire song. Corea, meanwhile, took some time to get up to speed. Phillinganes and he sat next to each other at two keyboards with Corea intently looking at what Phillinganes was doing for several minutes. Eventually, he got it and started to chip in on the long run out of the song. When "As" concluded, Wonder started to talk about how much fun it would be to do one of Hancock's tunes whereupon, he called "Watermelon Man" and the band pretty much put it together on the spot. Hey, that one wasn't on Songs in the Key of Life! But, it was OK. Really OK.

Another deviation from the original album was Wonder's use of the harpejji, a relatively new instrument Wonder started playing only in 2012. It's a cross between a guitar and a keyboard and is played by tapping the strings. It's a fairly compact unit and looks a little like a court reporter's stenographic machine, only a little bigger. Wonder jammed on his new instrument for several minutes coaxing some pleasant chords and sweet melody lines.

An additional guest artist Tuesday evening was Gerald Albright, a performer who typically falls into the "Smooth Jazz" category. He lives near Denver, so he was handy. Wonder brought him on stage to help with "Ebony Eyes," the closer of the first set and one of those tunes from the 7 inch EP. Yet another "guest" artist was Dorothy Ashby who played harp on the original recording of "It's Magic." Unfortunately, Ashby passed away in 1986, but Wonder wanted her harp in the show, so he sang with her recorded harp part.

Wonder has long been a political activist and if people exist that don't like him, this could be a reason. He was instrumental in creating a U.S. holiday honoring Martin Luther King. Songs in the Key of Life itself contains quite a few political statements and calls for social justice. Tuesday night, he made a pitch before the second set began for support for overturning state "Stand Your Ground" laws which have been blamed by some for creating, or at least, excusing some gun violence.

Overall, the concert came close to recreating the sound of Songs in the Key of Life. If anything, many of the tunes had a bigger sound owing to the massive band Wonder assembled. Wonder's voice has been nicely preserved over the intervening 39 years. His delivery was relaxed and authoritative all evening with only a couple points of strain. Some of the tunes ran longer than the album versions to make room for solos by many different band members. More than anything, however, the concert was simply a joyful occasion because of Wonder's sunny, upbeat personality and incessantly happy disposition. Who could disagree with that?
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