Not all musical retrospectives are a guaranteed success, since time can put rust on many a talent, but Stevie Wonder was ebulliently up for the challenge.
By Matt Hanson
Songs in the Key of Life, recorded in 1976, has a certain distinction within Stevie Wonder’s formidable catalogue. Not only is it his most ambitious record for musical density, complexity and scope (it is, after all, an unprecedented four sides of music and a bonus EP) but it’s also, arguably, his masterpiece. Songs marks the fullest maturation of Wonder’s talent and overall musical project after his gutsy rejection of Motown’s assembly line songwriting process: he demanded (and got) full artistic control when he was barely out of his teens.
It marks the apex in a career full of high points, from the immortal early singles like “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “My Cherie Amour” to the spiritual searching of the albums Innervisions and Talking Book. Earlier this week at the TD Garden, Stevie Wonder continued his current tour performing the 38-year-old record in its entirety, a tour that will have to pause in the next couple of weeks for the man himself to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Not all musical retrospectives are a guaranteed success, since time can put rust on many a talent, but Wonder was ebulliently up for the challenge. The entirety of the set lasted three and half hours with one short break, which was a feat of endurance if nothing else. He not only sang each song with his inimitable charisma and enthusiasm, but he led the massive band behind him like the pop maestro he is. Somehow, he manages to have dozens of musicians listed as album personnel while writing and recording much of the instrumentation himself. Wonder’s musical ambition is nothing if not all-encompassing: he is as equally effective putting across the social outrage of “Village Ghetto Land” as the swing band tribute “Sir Duke.”
The band consisted of several drummers, multiple guitarists, a string section and at least half a dozen backup singers, two of which were pregnant, amusingly taking the title of the record rather literally. India.Arie contributed backup vocals on several songs, helping to flesh out the ballad “Joy Inside My Tears”; she reappeared throughout the set in several resplendent gowns. Aisha Morris, Stevie’s daughter and who also happens to be the subject of “Isn’t She Lovely,” one of the biggest hits on the record, added her voice to the choir of backup singers.
Clearly delighted with the opportunity to perform, Wonder remained playful throughout the concert, spontaneously challenging his backup singers to match his vocal acrobatics. He cracked jokes about his blindness (“I smell marijuana…It’s a good smell…maybe it’ll make me see better”) and good-naturedly bantered with the audience.
My seat was high up in the rafters, but it was still a thrill to see him tossing his head in ecstasy the way he does, riding the buoyancy of the beat in songs like “I Wish” and “Have A Talk with God” as easily he did when the songs were new. Part of the fun of listening to Wonder lies in how every note he plays is imbued with the obvious joy he takes in creating it. It’s a palpable feeling that can’t help but be reciprocated; I doubt that anyone in the almost-full Garden wasn’t feeling it.
At one point, Stevie Wonder gave an impromptu monologue where he made a point of praising veterans and offered his support for Boston’s first responders, explaining that he felt the pain of the marathon bombing all the way from the West Coast. One might wonder whose pain Wonder doesn’t feel, but the response of the crowd after hearing him utter the phrase Boston Strong was worth the cliche.
The only real weaknesses in the show came later in the program. “Black Man” is a somewhat mawkish ode to diversity and racial accomplishment that makes use of an overly long recording of children singing (in unison) lyrics about peace and unity, open heart surgery, building railroads, and the Emancipation Proclamation. The effect is cute enough on the record, but it was ear-splittingly shrill and distorted coming out of the Garden’s loudspeakers. I’m still scratching my head over the extraterrestrial utopian fantasy of “Saturn,” with its imagery of universal brotherhood under orange snow, but if Wonder still wants to take us to outer space it’s probably wise to suspend disbelief.
The show ended with some whimsical fake outs, supposedly to determine the last song. Quick teases of the intros to lesser-known eighties material, such as “Master Blaster (Jammin)” and “Do I Do,” popped up until the unmistakably funky strut of “Superstition” arrived. (Interestingly, this was the only non-Songs track he played, and it was probably the most danced-to tune of the night). Stevie Wonder’s dazzling performance of his decades-old material not only shows that he’s still got the chops well into his sixties, but it also proves that a thing of beauty, let alone wonder, is a joy forever.
Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.