Archives for the month of: November, 2014

Concert Review: Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life: The Performance (Toronto, Air Canada Centre, November 25 2014)

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Stevie Wonder is one of those musicians who is prone to being taken for granted. He has been around long enough to be a household name across three generations of music lovers and he is still performing.

Wonder’s concert on Tuesday night in Toronto was a stirring reminder that he and his body of work are so much more than a familiar background. It was especially fitting that he chose to perform his 1976 masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life (Motown) for this 11 city tour. Songs is one of the most celebrated albums in pop music, voted to the top of numerous lists, including Grammy for album of the year in 1977 against now legendary competition like George Benson’s Breezin (Warner Bros., 1976), Bozz Scagg’s Silk Degrees (Columbia, 1976), and the rock classic Frampton Comes Alive! (A&M, 1976).

With this tour, Wonder brings this work to new life in the vibrancy of a live show. This is where Wonder’s currency hits home. He is, above all, a great songwriter and musician. This show proved it all over again.

Wonder performed the entirety of the album, mostly in order, including the four extra tracks on the special edition of the album. The concert’s run time was 3 hours including a short intermission and an encore.

Aside from the songs themselves, the performances of Wonder and his collaborators made this a simply excellent show. Wonder’s energy and power never waned, despite a slight hoarseness in his speaking voice when addressing the audience between songs. Original session musicians from Songs, Greg Phillinganes (keyboards) and Nathan Watts (bass guitar), were among the 30+ musicians sharing the stage, including an 8-piece string section sourced locally in Toronto, a 6 piece horn section, 6 back-up singers, 2 drummers, and 2 percussionists.

Wonder’s special guest for the tour is vocalist India.Arie, who complemented Wonder on several duets. More remarkable, however, was Keith John, one of the back-up singers who engaged in an impressive ad lib call-and-response with Wonder at the end of “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” John, who is 1950’s Motown singer Little Willie John’s son, has a voice like Wonder’s that offered a seamless boost to some of the most acrobatic vocal passages of the night, including the layered climax of “As.”

Other memorable moments of the night:

  • Three of the back-up singers, including Aisha Morris (Wonder’s daughter and muse of “Isn’t She Lovely”) took turns belting out the hard hitting coda of “Ordinary Pain.”
  • “Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing” featured a playful sing-a-long with the audience and a mezmorizing harpejji solo (zither-like instrument Wonder started playing 2-3 years ago) blended with a few phrases of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
  • Wonder challenged members of the string section to an impromptu jam. He proceeded to play a few phrases and was responded to in kind by the first violinist who echoed them on his instrument.
  • The encore was a medley of hits from other albums. Wonder chose to adopt a tongue-in-cheek hip-hop persona, dubbed DJ Tick Tick Boom, as the emcee of the proceedings. The segment was hammed up enough to distance itself from the solemnity of the Songs performance but done in a way that allowed the audience to hear some other favourites.

Like many others, I’ve always recognized Stevie Wonder as a “living legend.” But at some point during the show, ‘knowing’ this as a matter of common knowledge paled in comparison to bearing witness. Now I really get it.

SET LIST (from setlist.fm):

  1. Love’s in Need of Love Today
  2. Have a Talk With God
  3. Village Ghetto Land
  4. Contusion
  5. Sir Duke
  6. I Wish
  7. Knocks Me Off My Feet w/Fever
  8. Pastime Paradise
  9. Summer Soft
  10. Ordinary Pain
  11. Saturn
  12. Ebony Eyes
  13. Isn’t She Lovely
  14. Joy Inside My Tears
  15. Black Man
  16. All Day Sucker
  17. Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
  18. Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing / The Way You Make Me Feel
  19. If It’s Magic
  20. As
  21. Another Star

ENCORE: DJ Tick Tick Boom (AKA Wonder) plays recorded snippets of various hits

  1. Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing
  2. I Just Called To Say I Love You
  3. Master Blaster (Jammin’)
  4. Do I Do
  5. For Once in My Life
  6. Superstition

 

Album Review: Dim Division, Miguel Migs (Soul Heaven Records, 2014)

dim_division_3Around the time IT consultants were in a frenzy over the Y2K bug, technicians of another kind were creating the music that would entrance us if the world really did end.

That era gave birth to a particular brand of deep house, also described as soulful house, melodic house, chill and so on. Two artists in that movement struck me as the most indelible at the time. One was Blue Six (a.k.a. Jay Denes)  which was responsible for the hit, Sweeter Love (1999, Wave Music). And the second was Miguel Migs (a.k.a. Miguel Steward) who produced under the pseudonym, Petalpusher.

Soon, there was a flood of “chill” and “lounge” collections. Cafe del Mar was as ubiquitous a franchise as Starbucks. After the deluge, house enthusiasts sought higher ground, wanting something edgier, more innovative. Their call was answered. New electronic music flourished in the wake of deep house and branched anew with projects like Groove Armada’s Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub) (Zomba Records, 2001), Dave Lee’s orchestral Jakatta (Z Records, 2002), and Mark Farina’s hip-hop laced Mushroom Jazz series (Om Records).

Still, there was something nostalgic about the summer of 1999 and 2000 and the music Blue Six and Miguel Migs imprinted on us.

That feeling is back with Migs’ new record, Dim Division. The album is rich with pleasing chord progressions, entrancing vocals, and beats that are utterly simpatico with the music. It has remarkable depth among its 15 tracks, which will easily remain in high rotation for fans of electronic and house music. At the moment for me, “Running Away” featuring Martin Luther is on endless repeat. Other vocalists include regular collaborator Lisa Shaw, Meshell Ndegeocello, Omar, and Aya (a.k.a. Lysa Aya Trenier) who featured on many Blue Six tracks.

Migs’ catalog through the 2000’s maintained a steady hand at deep house but Dim Division could be his very best. I’ll be listening for years still.

Related Listening

Album Review: A Place Like This – EP, Majid Jordan (Ovo Sound/Warner Bros, 2014)

MJ500x500 On a business trip to Florida last year, an associate asked me where I was from and when I said Toronto, she said, “oh, so you must be friends with Drake.”

This went over my head at the time because she was a middle-aged Floridian who looked like her music library had plenty of Jimmy Buffet but nary a hint of hip hop. Turns out, she knew full well the notoriety that Drake (a.k.a. Aubrey Drake Graham) brought to my native city.

At the time, I hadn’t really explored Drake’s music. When I sampled his album, Nothing Was the Same (Cash Money Records, 2013), the two tracks that appealed most to me were the trancey “From Time feat. Jhene Aiko” and “Hold On We’re Going Home feat. Majid Jordan,” which hit number 1 on R&B charts last year.

Majid Jordan is a Toronto-based duo consisting of Majid Al Maskati and Jordan Ullman. Their debut EP, A Place Like This, offers more of the etherial vibe of that Drake track, with a grounding in R&B and an unabashed embrace of electronic music.

All five tracks on this EP are strong, with the title track and “Her” being the most immediately accessible. The entire EP, however has a consistent feel that makes it a quick end-to-end listen.

This project continues a promising trend in the interplay of R&B and electronic music. Acts like Jessie Ware, The Internet, Lulu James, and the excellent KING have all released soulful R&B tracks with electronic production that gives them newness without resorting to gimmickry. Also native sons of Toronto, it might be said that Al Maskati and Ullman labour in Drake’s shadow. A Place Like This surely gives Majid Jordan a place in the sun.