Sunday, November 16, 2014

You Can Feel It All Over: A Stevie Wonder Full Night in the Key of Life -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Stevie Wonder
performing Songs in the Key of Life
United Center, Chicago
November 14, 2014

Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand

With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands

-- Stevie Wonder
   "Sir Duke"

I've never not had tremendous regard for Stevie Wonder, but I came to be aware of him predominantly amidst an era of relative mediocrity--"I Just Called to Say I Love You," "Ebony and Ivory," "Part-Time Lover"--and caricature, albeit lovingly, by Eddie Murphy.

Subsequently, I became familiar with his greatest hits, but my point of reference for two of his best--"Superstition" and "Higher Ground"--was for awhile as much for great covers by Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as for the original recordings.

Wonder has only released one album in the 21st Century--2005's A Time to Love, which I've never heard--and though my friend Dave gifted my the 1973 classic Innervisions and I had a blast seeing Stevie at a 2008 Taste of Chicago concert, until recent days I lacked proper appreciation for the breadth of Wonder's oeuvre and the depth of his genius.

So while it might have been easy to wish his concert Friday night at the United Center in Chicago was more of a career-spanning affair with hits such as "Higher Ground," "Uptight (Everything's Alright)," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "That Girl" and others, even heading into the UC with Dave and two other friends, I was happy Stevie Wonder decided to revisit his 1976 Songs in the Key of Life album in full.

And with it being a double album with an additional 4-song EP, that made for a rather extensive "in full."

While I don't completely with disagree with Dave Grohl's recent, "It's presumptuous. It's lazy," condemnation of acts that tour behind a single classic album, not only have some of my favorites (and seemingly Grohl's) like Rush (Moving Pictures), The Who (Quadrophenia) and Roger Waters (The Wall) done so quite satisfyingly, but perhaps Dave should stop being such the arbiter of rock 'n roll purity and start writing Foo Fighters songs that don't all sound the same (and I say this as a huge Foo fan).

Because Wonder's decision prompted me to do something I imagine Grohl would champion: to mine an act's career, artistry and messages in depth, not merely their most popular songs on Spotify.

Songs in the Key of Life is not an instantly nor easily digestible album. Although it was a huge seller upon its release--ultimately selling over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone--and ranks #57 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time, I must admit to only really knowing "Sir Duke," "I Wish" and "Isn't She Lovely" before listening prolifically prior to the concert.

And I still can't say I know all the songs thoroughly after a rather brief bout of cramming and now having heard them sung live. Few are mere ear candy, whether they express social concerns (including racial inequality) or more personal matters--all amazingly written when Wonder was just 24-26 years of age following three other classic albums (Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale). Also amazing is that it was already his 18th studio album.

So although the current concert tour was clearly promoted for what it was, unless one arrived at the UC long ago thoroughly versed in Wonderland--a lady sitting next to us had seen Stevie at the Regal back in 1963; our friend Stacy said her sister had seen him at Maine East High School around the same time--or having done their homework, much of the 3-hour show may not have been as acutely thrilling as it was for me and my friends.

But from the time Wonder walked onstage arm-in-arm with the great guest singer India.Arie and told the crowd that he was both proud and chagrined that the classic album was still entirely relevant, I loved every minute of it.

Sure, the ebullient hits were wondrous, especially as "Sir Duke" is one of most buoyant tunes ever written and to see the mixed-race crowd deliriously happy in harmony--per the quote atop this review--spoke to what a humanitarian treasure Stevie Wonder has always been.

But even more pleasingly, several of the songs I didn't know a couple weeks ago were demonstrably among the show's highlights.

You can see the full Stevie Wonder United Center setlist here, but in the first set "Village Ghetto Land," "Knocks Me Off My Feet," "Ordinary Pain" and "Saturn" (the latter with great singing from Aire) were glorious. But truly, so was everything else.

At 64, Wonder is still in great voice, and he's surrounded onstage himself with up to 30 crack musicians, including a horn section, orchestra and several longtime collaborators.

His daughter, Aisha Morris, is one of his backup singers, and a sweet moment occurred to begin the second set as Stevie explained before playing it that "Isn't She Lovely" was written upon her birth. 

The subsequent song, an extended take on "Joy Inside My Tears," actually brought Wonder to tears, but also did much to illustrate that we were witnessing not just sensational entertainment, but a kind of overarching musical brilliance and artistic genius not readily present today.

Introducing “If it’s Magic,” Wonder noted that the harpist on the original track, Dorothy Ashby, had passed away years ago. In tribute, Wonder sang the song backed by a recording of Ashby's original playing.

This was just one more sublime aspect of a special performance that was also enhanced by Wonder at his cheekiest--"In 2017 the world's going to learn that Stevie Wonder was never really blind"--and also much more austere in railing against the scourge of guns in this country.  

21 songs into the evening brought the end of Songs in the Key of Life with the wonderful "As" and "Another Star."

Though from setlists of recent shows in New York and Boston, I expected "Superstition" and perhaps "Do I Do/Master Blaster," the ever amiable star playfully adopted the guise of DJ Tick Tick Boom and abetted the latter with a medley of "For Once in My Life," "My Cherie Amour" (which he told us was written for a Chicago-based love) and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" before ending the night in ecstatic fashion with the former.

So it's not as if we were rendered hitless, even beyond the singles upon  Songs in the Key of Life.

But while any concert that includes "Sir Duke," "I Wish," "My Cherie Amour," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" and "Superstition" will almost assuredly be enjoyable, it was actually the less-famous songs--and my being prompted to become acquainted with them as components of one of history's most profoundly personal, all-encompassing musical statements--that made this one so tremendous.

A trip back to Songs in the Key of Life truly begat A Night in the Key of Wonder, in every possible way.

Here's a clip of "As," posted to YouTube by REMChicagoBoy:

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