Performs Songs in the Key of Life Live
November 14th, 2014
United Center, Chicago, IL
There are few albums more ambitious than Stevie Wonder’s 1976 double-album Songs in the Key of Life. It’s as ambitious and ornate as Sgt. Pepper’s and as diverse and wide-ranging as the White Album. It’s exploration of life in the inner city and a divided, violent country and his idealist call for love to heal all divides transcends the period and is still relevant 38 years later. I saw Stevie Wonder perform this classic album and a sampling of his hits in a 3-hour set to remember.
Stevie came out not just as the main act but the hospitable host for the night. Stevie grabbed the mic at various points in the night to walk through what was being performed and the meaning behind it, like a composer preparing the audience for the arrangement they are about to hear. This is absolutely appropriate when you consider the incredible size and scale of Songs in the Key of Life, that requires a full string section on “Village Ghetto Land” and “Pastime Paradise”, a boisterous brass section on “Sir Duke” and “I Wish”, and a glowing gospel choir on “As” and “Love’s In Need of Love Today”. At certain points of the night, there was 30+ musicians on stage, each one of them feeling essential for the hugeness that is Songs in the Key of Life.
The evening opened with the audio balm of “Love’s In Need of Love Today”, with Stevie scatting his way to the finish over a bed of gospel vocals, followed by the swampy blues of “Have a Talk with God”. The evening really got going in my mind with the melancholy “Village Ghetto Land”, which pretty much serves as the Stevie Wonder’s “Eleanor Rigby”, a song whose sadness and poverty is contrasted by the rich baroque strings.
Then comes the murderer’s row of side one of Songs. The jazz-fusion of “Contusion” ramps up into the big, brash celebratory “Sir Duke”, followed by the funky “I Wish”, the huge balladry of “Knocks Me Off My Feet”, and the prophetic “Pastime Paradise”. Probably the biggest problem with doing Songs straight through is it is so front-loaded with side one, and the best stretch of the show comes in the first hour. However, I thought Stevie recovered about as well as one can for the second half.
The longing brightness of “Summer Soft”, defiant funk of “Ordinary Pain”, bouncy romp of “Ebony Eyes”, and hopeful escapism of “Saturn” finished out the first half, with Stevie even getting a little fiery and political when talking about gun control and violence before “Saturn”. A 15-minute break led to the most sentimental stretch of the evening with an inspired “Isn’t She Lovely” and a surprisingly great “Joy Inside My Tears”. Stevie’s oldest daughter, Aisha Morris, was one of Stevie’s backup singers on the evening, and was the inspiration behind “Isn’t She Lovely”. I’m not always one for sappy moments, but it’s hard to deny the beauty of Stevie singing almost in tears about his beautiful now full-grown daughter and reflecting on the time she was born. Stevie sounded his very best on “Joy Inside My Tears”, a song that swelled larger and larger until Stevie was in full-on tears. It’s incredible to see someone who has been in music for over 50 years still putting it on the line every night, singing vulnerable and honestly and having such a hopeful outlook after all these years.
Seasoned R&B artist Indie Arie served as Stevie’s duet partner on “Saturn” and “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia/I Am Singing”, both which shined with Arie’s joyful energy. Some other songs on the back half of the set didn’t fair as well though. The kids recording on “Black Man” was completely piercing and just another reason that sports arenas are the worst place to see shows for audio quality. “All Day Sucker” got a little muddled with it’s wild mix of instruments, in addition to it being one of the worst songs on Songs (the original vinyl had it on a bonus EP, Something Extra).
All was recovered with the monster 1-2 finale of “As” and “Another Star”. After the album had finished, Stevie switched into “DJ Tick Tick Boom” mode, playing the first half of a number of his other hits including “Oh Cherie Amour”, “Master Blaster”, and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”. After cutting a number of his hits short due to time restraints (the show still went 30 minutes over the normal 11 PM curfew concerts usually stick to), Wonder and his massive band finished with “Superstition”, a great way to go out and maybe the only way to top that ridiculous first half stretch on Songs. It was amazing how lively, youthful, and energetic Stevie still sounded, and it was a treat seeing such a legend perform such a timeless album.
Can’t Miss: “Village Ghetto Land”, “Sir Duke”, “Joy Inside My Tears”, “Superstition”
Can’t Hit: “Black Man”, “All Day Sucker”