I’ve seen stories over the past decade or so saying Stevie Wonder is done. Saying Stevie Wonder can’t play. Saying, Stevie Wonder is washed up. Well I’m here to tell you, the reports of his decline have been greatly exaggerated. Last night he delivered one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen, taking the audience at the United Center on a trip in his rocketship of positivity. Songs In The Key Of Life is one of the most iconic, influential, and intimate records ever made, and he played it as beautifully as ever.
After his band took the stage, 27 strong including his daughter Iesha (a vocalist), Stevie was led out by his special guest on the tour india.arie. He spoke for a few minutes about the album, about getting his big break here in Chicago, and about writing the song “My Chere Amour” about a girl he was seeing in the city. He made a great joke, saying “She may even be here in the audience tonight, but I haven’t seen her yet.” He was led over to his keyboard/piano control center and said “Alright let’s do this.”
He played the whole album through, so no need to post a setlist. The crowd sang along with almost every lyric, and you could feel the palpable reverence in the room. The only time I felt like that was broken came during “Village Ghetto Land.” During the last part of the song, when he sang “People tell us we should be glad for what we have,” he added “Still in 2014” and people applauded. I found that a bit odd, cheering for the fact that 40 years later our society is still plagued by the same problems that Stevie was singing about back then. A minor hiccup, but it couldn’t stop the good times from rollin’.
The band Stevie put together for this tour is incredible. A ten-piece string section, six horns, three guys on percussion including Stanley Randolph who is an absolute beast on the drums, keys, two guitarists, Nathan Watts on bass, and a fantastic harmonica player whose name escapes me, who held up well against Wonder’s virtuosic talents. He also had six backup singers on hand, so the sounds coming from the stage really matched the power of the sound on the album.
It’s hard to single songs out when every single track is a classic. My favorites were “Have A Talk With God,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and “Saturn,” which he sang with india.arie. A couple truly special moments came in the second half of the show. During “Joy Inside My Tears” Stevie was completely overcome with emotion and cried openly through the song without missing a beat. And on “If It’s Magic” he gave the band a break and used the original harp music of the now deceased Dorothy Ashby, with her image gracing the large monitors on either side of the stage.
One difference between the show last night and the others on this short tour came post-Songs. After the final notes of the record, Stevie shifted gears into DJ Tick Tick Boom mode, leading the band in snippets from some of his biggest hits. On top of “Master Blaster” and “Do I Do,” which he’s played at other stops, we also were treated to “For Once In My Life,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” and “My Chere Amour” before he closed with “Superstition.” After every start and stop, whether a couple verses or just the hook, Stevie’s band would tell “DJ TICK TICK BOOM!” A great amount of fun that I didn’t expect and thoroughly enjoyed.
If you’re not familiar with Songs In The Key Of Life, there’s no time like the present to get acquainted. It’s themes are as relevant today as they were in 1976 (if not more so), and the music is so far ahead of its time that if it came out today people would still shake their heads and say “How did he come up with that sound?”
For a few song clips from the show, check out our Instagram account.