Stevie Wonder. Pepsi Center. 03.17.15
Anticipation is a killer. I’m fortunate enough to be able to attend quite a few shows every year, so it’s a rare occasion that I find myself with that awkward feeling. I live by the theory that going to a show is a perfect way to pass the time while you’re waiting to go to the next show. Sometimes there are events that are impossible not to anticipate though. They can be big events or small events, but for one reason or another, they are special. Last night was one of those big events…a living legend performing his classic masterpiece in its entirety. I can’t claim to have been directly affected by Songs in the Key of Life when it was released upon the world in 1976 (I was in the womb), but I do understand its significance as one of the most important albums in modern music. I can’t claim to be a diehard Stevie Wonder fan either, but I understand the overwhelming sphere of influence he has on artists across all genres of modern music. The man’s life story is almost as incredible as his life’s work. He overcame immense obstacles and impossible odds to achieve his status as a giant among peers. It was for those reasons that I could not contain my anticipation. Seeing Stevie Wonder perform Songs in the Key of Life, an album I’ve had on constant rotation since the show was announced (on my dad’s original vinyl with the extra 7”), was going to be more than just a bucket list concert…I was sure it was going to be nothing less than magic.
Anticipation can cause expectations that fly so high that not even the voice of an angel can reach their heights. Anticipation can make a great performance seem only good in comparison to those unreasonable expectations. So it was that I found myself immediately disappointed last night. I was accosted by security for having a camera, even though it didn’t say anything about ‘no cameras’ on the website or emails about the show. I had to trek across the whole venue to ‘check’ the camera before finding my way to the seats. It was because of this that I missed Stevie’s opening speech, but I was able to catch the tail end when he asked the crowd to film and share the performance. Hundreds of phones went in the air, making me seriously question why my camera wasn’t aloud. I guess only shitty photos and videos were allowed? We were on the floor, but in assigned seating. No one was sitting down, but even in an upright position, there was barely room to move because the rows were positioned on top of each other. Somehow, in my vision of the evening, I completely forgot I was going to be in the Pepsi Center.
Despite my frustration with my surroundings, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how good everything sounded. Stevie was surrounded by a rotating circus of musicians and backup singers, as well as a full string section. At one point I think there were over 40 people on the stage. His voice was ageless as he kicked off Songs with “Love’s in Need of Love Today”, “Have a Talk With God” and “Village Ghetto Land”. I know they are completely different albums, but I couldn’t help but think of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and how Songs in the Key of Life might have been polarizing in its time as well. “Contusion” followed, as it does on the album, and that’s when I realized the performance was going to include quite a few jam interludes. I am not a fan of the jam, so once again I found myself staring up at the ceiling, cursing my lofty expectations as they danced along with those in the nosebleeds.
It wasn’t until “Sir Duke” that I really got my groove. Notice I say “my groove”. Everyone else (on stage and off) were in lockstep from the beginning. It just took me a bit to come around. From that point on, it was smooth sailing through the first half of the album. After the closer, “Ordinary Love”, Aisha (his daughter) led the female backup singers through a selection, before they closed out the first half with two tracks from the bonus 7” that came with the original LP. We were an hour and a half into the show, but things were just getting started.
Aisha assisted her father back on stage for the second half, and after a quick speech about gun control (which divided the Denver crowd), he sat down at the piano to sing that song he wrote for her when she was born. “Isn’t She Lovely” is my favorite song on the album and he nailed it. The second half started out as a true representation of the album, but then it took a few twists and turns. After “Black Man”, he took us back to the 7” for the remaining bonus tracks, before bringing the beautifully talented Jasmin Cruz to his side for “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing”. This turned into another jam that almost went off the rails, but was brought back home with a partial cover of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”. A little MJ was just what some people needed to get their second wind as the night got later.
Before I give offense to anyone on that stage, I want to stress how the horns, the strings, the percussion and the backup singers made for an incredible kaleidoscope of sound, in which no single part was any less important than the other, but I have to say that my favorite song of the whole night didn’t include any of them. “If It’s Magic” was performed by Stevie and the ghost of Dorothy Ashby. Stevie stood alone on that stage, while the album track of Dorothy’s harp played in the background. Her photo was on the big screens as he sang the song over her gorgeous strings. It was a touching part of the evening and it also showcased how perfect his voice still is. It was worth the price of admission alone.
Dorothy Ashby died of cancer, but another Songs collaborator was alive and well. This collaborator also happened to be in town performing a show with Chick Corea at Boettcher Concert Hall. So it was that Herbie Hanock and Mr. Corea came out to jam on “As” and “Watermelon Man”. Once again, I am not a jam fan, but I’d have to be an idiot to complain about seeing those three on a stage together. The crowd went absolutely crazy!
After having fun with a couple of his friends, Stevie closed out the album with “Another Day”. We were three and a half hours into the night, but he still took the time to introduce every single person on the stage during that song. I have to admit that I was getting pretty tired at that point, but if Stevie Wonder still had it in him to keep going, who was I to complain?
The night ended with Stevie playing DJ. More specifically, he became DJ Tick Tick BOOM! He played the role right. “What’s my name?!!!” He demanded the crowd put the BOOM on it! He assured us “he aint’ playin’”, although he very much was. After messing around with a mixing board for a bit, we were treated to “Living for the City” and “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”. Then he brought out the big guns. Closing the performance with “Superstition” was perfection. It was 11:45pm on a Tuesday night and the house was still packed. Everyone was on their feet…
“When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer, Superstition ain’t the way, no, no, no”
Stevie Wonder overcame immense obstacles and impossible odds to be standing on the stage at Pepsi Center last night, almost as if he were a magician, and throughout the concert he proved he hadn’t lost of bit of that spark in his 64 years on this earth. He professed nothing but love for everyone in attendance, over and over again, and he received nothing but love back. Anticipation and jam sessions that went on too long for this anti-jam guy could have killed it for me, but Stevie wouldn’t let that happen. He put on the performance of a lifetime and it truly was nothing less than magic.
Love’s in Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God
Village Ghetto Land
Knocks Me Off My Feet
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
The Way You Make Me Feel
If It’s Magic
Living for the City
Uptight (Everything’s Alright)