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

 

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