Joy and (Stevie) Wonder

After ominous start, Stevie Wonder celebrates life in extraordinary, thrilling three-hour concert

After somber start, Stevie Wonder celebrates life in thrilling concert

Stevie Wonder and daughter Aisha at Songs in the Key of Life concert
Stevie Wonder and daughter, Aisha, who he penned "Isn't She Lovely" for when she was born. Photo by Jane Howze
Stevie Wonder and singers take bow at Songs in the Key of Life concert
Stevie Wonder and his backup singers take a bow at end of the extraordinary 3-hour performance. Photo by Jane Howze
Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life concert
Stevie Wonder played the entire Songs in the Key of Life album, which still sounds fresh and innovative. Photo by Jane Howze
Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life concert
Stevie Wonder played a range of instruments during the three-hour concert. Photo by Jane Howze
Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life concert
Stevie Wonder's remains as strong as it was when "Little Stevie Wonder" first appeared nearly 50 years ago.  Photo by Jane Howze
Stevie Wonder and daughter Aisha at Songs in the Key of Life concert
Stevie Wonder and singers take bow at Songs in the Key of Life concert
Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life concert
Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life concert
Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life concert

Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key Of Life concert touched down at the Houston Toyota Center Friday night with an ominous start. Taking the stage nearly an hour late, Wonder, escorted by his daughter Aisha Morris, apologized for being late and announced that one of the band members had been rushed to the hospital unconscious and asked for prayers.  He then added cryptically “don’t believe everything you hear.”  

It was a somber beginning.  With palpable pain and sadness etched on his face, Wonder launched into “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” the first cut of his highly acclaimed two album set of the same name that was released in 1976. But by the end of this gospel-inspired song Wonder had allowed himself to be lifted by the power and escape that good music offers. And by the time he hit the fifth song, “Sir Duke,” the crowd in the nearly sold-out arena was on their feet, and despite off-stage issues, Wonder was joyful, funny and playful. 

And what talent! 

 For those who have not seen Wonder in person, he is jaw-dropping good. He plays the piano, harmonica, keyboard and an unusual string instrument, the harpjji. His voice is as strong as it was when "Little Stevie Wonder" first appeared nearly 50 years ago. The songs he penned 40(!)years ago are timeless, and with his artistry, they seemed both new and hauntingly familiar.

 By the time he hit the fifth song, “Sir Duke,” the crowd in the nearly sold-out arena was on their feet, and despite off-stage issues, Wonder was joyful, funny and playful.

Wonder is every bit the showman that Paul McCartney is, and even better because he is obviously unscripted. He stopped at one point and tried to affect a Texas drawl saying, “Houston I love you.” At another point he spoke about a Children’s Charity in Los Angeles that gave toys to children at Christmas, and said that he might bring the charity to Houston along with another show.

Wonder improvised sing-alongs with both his backup singers and the audience.  It was wonderfully free flowing and showed what command he had of his audience. 

The 29-song set spread over three hours (with a brief intermission) played to a well-heeled, diverse, middle aged crowd eager to stand up and dance. It was a massive production, with six back-up singers, a 10- person string section comprised of Houston talent (one violinist was given an opportunity to jam with Wonder), a seven-piece horn section, dual keyboardists, guitarists and four percussionists.   

Album sequence

The first half of the show followed the exact sequence of the album, until just before intermission when Wonder closed with two numbers from the bonus EP version, “Saturn” and “Ebony Eyes.” Highlights included a soulful and timeless “Village Ghetto Land,” whose harsh words describing life in a ghetto were in sharp contrast to the exquisite and tender accompaniment of the string section. 

Part two of the show opened with an extended “Isn’t She Lovely,” which Wonder penned following the birth of daughter, Aisha, who sang back-up vocals throughout the show. The second half mostly followed the original track list of the second album, although Wonder included “All Day Sucker” and “Easy Goin’ Evening,” two from the extended set in the middle, together with a nod to Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” which he played on the harpjji. 

 Towards the end of the evening Wonder asked, “Are you ready to go home?” And when the answer came back “nooooooo,” he seemed as thrilled as we were. 

Highlights of the second half included Wonder accompanying a taped version of the late harpist Dorothy Asby with “If It’s Magic” and “As” that had the entire audience on its feet, and the Herbie Hancock cover “Watermelon Man,” which also included seven previously unseen dancers coming on stage and juking out.  I wondered if they were family members. They didn’t look like professional dancers. Well, no matter. It just added to the special feeling of the evening.

Towards the end of the evening Wonder asked, “Are you ready to go home?” And when the answer came back “nooooooo,” he seemed as thrilled as we were. 

Wonder continued on,  introducing “When the World Began,” a new song for an upcoming album which he is working on with composer David Foster, before assuming the role of his alter ego, DJ Tick Tick Boom, and playing snippets of other hits not on the Songs in the Key of Life album, including “Reggae Woman,” “Higher Ground” and “Part-Time Lover.” 

He ended this exhilarating evening by singing “For Once in My Life” and “Superstition,” leading the entire audience in a gigantic sing and dance session, and the band played on as his daughter escorted him off the stage. 

The concert was not without its imperfections. The camera work was a little jerky at times. I would have loved to see Wonder's finger work as he played the harjji, a difficult instrument but there was no camera on it or the keyboards of  several of the other instruments he so masterfully played. At times, the sound was not as clear as it could have been, and I could not understand all of the repartee. 

But these are tiny quibbles, and they had little impact on the joy, excitement and  yes, wonder, the audience experienced at seeing one of the great artists of our time.  

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