December 20, 2014
For the past 19 years, Stevie Wonder has acted as a pseudo-Santa Claus for the House Full of Toys charity by putting on a concert as a gift drive for those in need. On Saturday, for the second straight year, he also gave fans a gift by performing his seminal album, the double LP Songs in the Key of Life, from front to back.
When the album was first released in 1976, Wonder was at the peak of his powers. However, Songs took nearly two years to complete, which was nearly unheard of during that era. At the time, the multi-instrumentalist was contemplating retirement in order to help children in Ghana — but he ultimately decided to forge ahead with his music (and a seven album, $37 million deal didn’t hurt, either).
Saturday’s show was a carbon copy of his recent 11-city tour, on which he also played Songs in its entirety. Unfortunately for fans, this meant few, if any of the usual surprises that the House Full of Toys concerts have become known for.
As he explained in his intro, this was his first real tour in support of the record. Wonder, accompanied to the stage by pal India.Arie, couldn’t help but beam.
“This was a journey in my life,” he told the crowd. “Thank God for giving me those 21 songs and the experiences around them.”
Wonder plowed through a marathon, nearly four-hour set — with a brief intermission between album's first and second discs — that also included his iconic hits at the end. Throughout the night, the 64-year-old was in great spirits, cracking jokes at his own expense, and his booming, spirited voice laid the foundation for the rest of his enormous band, which featured many longtime collaborators.
The problem with having such a gigantic backing group, at least for this performance, was that there were way too many unnecessarily loose jams that deviated too far from the original compositions. At some points, the crowd surprisingly lost interest, even if Wonder seemed invigorated by the cohesion between himself and his band.
In fairness, on tighter, sharper arrangements, like “Pastime Paradise” and the spunky, bass-driven “I Wish,” that was crowd was on their feet dancing, even during the jams.
Wonder was in a good mood throughout the night, but knowing his history of social activism, it is curious why he waited so long to address the issues surrounding Ferguson, which he eventually did towards the very end. While his comments were powerful, one can’t help but wonder why they didn't come until people were heading to the exits.
By the time he started playing his encore of hit singles, it was well after midnight and a good portion of the crowd had already departed. Many of those who remained could be seen nursing cups of coffee.
Another talking point among attendees was how this benefit was missing the special guests that are usually sprinkled throughout the show. The lack of surprise was, in fact, a surprise.
At this point in his career, playing Songs in the Key of Life is a victory lap of sorts for Stevie Wonder. It’s been nearly 10 years since his last batch of original material. His voice remains in prime form, but it appears that for now, he's more comfortable revisiting his past than forging ahead with his future.
Still, the one thing Wonder has taught fans over the years is to never bet against him doing something bold and ambitious.
Songs In The Key Of Life – Set 1:
Love's in Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God (with India.Arie) (Deniece Williams on lead background vocals)
Village Ghetto Land (with strings section)
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Fever (Little Willie John cover) (lead vocals by Keith John, his son)
(Jam on the Groove)
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Pastime Paradise (with strings section)
Ordinary Pain (Shirley Brewer on lead background vocals)
Saturn (with India.Arie)
Songs In The Key Of Life – Set 2:
Isn't She Lovely
Joy Inside My Tears
All Day Sucker
Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing (with India.Arie)
Tequila / The Little Drummer Boy / Silent Night / The Way You Make Me Feel medley
If It's Magic
Another Star (with India.Arie)
Do I Do (snippet)
Master Blaster (snippet)
Living for the City (shortened version)
I Just Called to Say I Love You (shortened version)