Stevie Wonder in Chicago
@@If Stevie Wonder ever begins to look his age and lose some of his ridiculous vocal range, take heed: the end is nigh.@@ Fortunately, neither has come to pass, as witnessed by a huge crowd at the United Center in Chicago on Friday night. I was expecting to enjoy the show but ended up loving it, partially for the Man himself and for his amazing ensemble of backing musicians, but also because of the diverse and enthusiastic fans that left me leaving the arena feeling positive about the status of American racial relations. Music can indeed bring people from different backgrounds together, something I learned back in 1987 when I attended Paul Simon’s Graceland tour, but in light of recent events and seen through eyes that are almost three decades older, Friday night’s concert was even more special to me.
Wonder came on stage first to talk to the audience – something I am not a fan of as it detracts from the thrill of the opening number – but quickly charmed the audience with what was for me a surprising sense of humor along with his well-known appeals for peace and love. When he introduced the first song of his magnum opus Songs in the Key of Life, one certainly couldn’t argue that “More than ever, love’s in need of love.” Six vocalists began the haunting opening phrase of the 1976 release, and Stevie followed with the familiar opening line, “Good morn or evening friends…”
I thought Arcade Fire crammed a lot of musicians on stage last year, but Wonder put that band to shame, as six horns, six backup singers, two drummers, two percussionists, two guitarists, two keyboardists and a bass player graced the stage. During peak numbers such as “Pastime Paradise,” an eight-piece string ensemble and approximately ten-piece choir joined the crew, and along with a harmonica player and conductor the total number of musicians exceeded forty. Wonder highlighted just how thrilling it is to play with “real musicians” and allowed each to shine at various points throughout the evening, most notably a playful competition with his backup singers at the conclusion of “Knocks me off my Feet.” While all the backup singers naturally held their own, I was amazed at how Wonder’s range continues to defy human physiology; he sounds as strong at sixty-five as he did at twenty-six when he recorded Songs in the Key of Life.
Stevie’s mastery of keyboards and the chromatic harmonica is well known, but during the second set he displayed his chops on an instrument that I thought was a stick but have learned since is actually a newer tapping instrument called a harpejji. A cross between keyboards and guitar, it offered a terrific accompaniment to several songs, including what appeared to be the only off-the-cuff track, a Buddy Guy tribute of “Hi-Heel Sneaker.”
I always thought Songs in the Key of Life had some filler tracks on the second two sides, or at the very least some filler minutes of some otherwise decent tracks, and I stand by my conclusions after hearing the album in its entirety, but when you have kick-ass musicians on stage performing for a full three hours, it hardly seems to matter. After the album's completion, Wonder’s alter-ego DJ Chick Chick Boom took over, playing snippets from a series of songs including the crowd-pleasing “My Cherie Amour” and “Superstition.” Had he been able to find room for “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” I would have been beside myself.
Wonder’s creative output since 1976 has been sporadic, and – at times – embarrassing, but no one can deny that from 1972 to 1976 he was one of the best, if not the best, composers. Forty years later, there’s no denying that he remains one of the best performers, and one of the few who can attract an audience of equal parts black and white, a special ability in a culture that so often separates itself along racial lines whether by circumstances or by choice. It felt good to buck this trend, if only for evening.
A special thank you to my kids who bought me and my wife the tickets for our twentieth anniversary!