Stevie Wonder has been an active performer for well over 50 years. He is one of the most respected, covered, and influential contributors to popular music around today. Tonight, we are at the final leg of the four-city tour created with MGM to celebrate his 68th birthday and also the opening of the new MGM, Springfield (MA) on September 1st.
Stevie Wonder starts off the set with “As if You Read My Mind” from 1980’s Hotter than July album. It’s a funky, upbeat song, but not necessarily his most well-known. However, hearing, at full volume, “Higher Ground” from the 1973 album Innervisions, delivers a message that is still relevant today.
Powers keep on lying
While your people keep on dying
World keep on turning
Societal struggles have been a theme in his work for decades. The original album cover has light passing into Stevie Wonder’s third eye, illuminating or creating his own “innervision”. Knowledge is power.
“We do it with love.” declares Stevie Wonder as he commences “Living for the City,” also from 1973 Innervisions album. This powerful song about social injustice is just as relevant today,
His father works some days for fourteen hours
And you can bet he barely makes a dollar
Stevie Wonder has had a consistent role as social activist. “Happy Birthday” 1980, brings global attention to the need for a day to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1986 he works with Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, and Lionel Richie for “ We are the World”. In 1988 he collaborates with Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick and Elton John for the AIDS benefit song “That’s What Friends Are For.” More recently, Stevie Wonder takes a knee in protest and solidarity at the Global Citizen Concert last September 2017, but actually, he took two knees.
Last week, Stevie Wonder recently remarked for Aretha Franklin’s eulogy that we should “make love great again.” Throughout the concert Stevie Wonder refers to the notion of love and how to celebrate it-maybe that’s his higher ground. To illustrate this he even brings the oldest married couple (his former sound engineer Malcolm Cecil) on stage for a song. He asks the audience to upload their wedding pictures. Later, while playing the 1969 romantic classic “My Cherie Amour,” the wedding pictures are projected for all to see.
“You can even tell the president I said Let’s make LOVE great again!”
When you hear him say this live, in the context of the concert with over 5000 people present, with absolute sincerity and conviction, his message is palpable and speaks to the heart. He truly believes that change is possible and we are part of that process.
It is probably no coincidence that later he works up a blues-inspired piece upon his harpejji, a tabletop percussive guitar instrument, which surprises the audience by slowly morphing into Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song he has previously referenced in regards to global and domestic injustices. Then, without pause, he transitions into arguably one of the greatest anthems for peace; John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Stevie Wonder explained back at Global Citizen Festival in 2013, the need for gun control, and the consequences for not just Lennon’s death, but for all of us. These are simple and beautiful renditions of songs by two artists, whom he respected. The audience sang along.
After a powerful “All I do”, where he incredibly sounds just like he did back in 1980, he takes it down a notch by playing one of his many ballads “You and I”, which has been covered by artists, including Barbra Streisand to George Michael. Tonight, he still reaches the high notes, more than singers half his age. His range is both wide and deep, a true vocalist, whose voice, like his dear friend Aretha’s, is a most powerful and beautiful instrument.
Being in the music business since he was 11, he has accumulated a lot of great stories. He joked several times about his blindness recalling a story with Smokey Robinson, who told him there was a beautiful girl behind him on stage. Then Marvin Gaye told him “this girl’s so beautiful, she’ll bring your eyesight back”. Stevie responded by saying, “I touched her leg and said I can see!’ Full of tongue-in-cheek anecdotes, he displays some of the old school charm and showmanship reminiscent of the earlier greats of the music business.
He plays the first few bars of “Ribbon in the Sky,” and when he’s just about to sing the first line, he just mimes, teasing the audience. When he does sing, we hear his unmistakable grand and signature voice we have all loved for decades, but for those present tonight, it’s a palpable, and moving experience. Some performers never quite sound up to their polished studio albums, but tonight Stevie Wonder delivers an experience beyond the studio, and also my expectations of a performer who has been doing this for half a century.
Stevie Wonder’s creative play with other people’s work is also about his deep respect for and connection to different genres. His begins a solo harmonica piece, a true extension of his vocal production, which slowly reveals to us the 1964 hit “Girl from Ipanema,” made famous by the Getz/Gilberto version. Though an inherently nostalgic song, Stevie Wonder’s harmonica adds to the melancholy with extended notes, and proves to be as powerful as his trumpet player and saxophone players with whom he riffs in this piece. His fellow keyboard player picks up the pace and pushes the piece into 70s jazz/fusion territory. This powerful yet subtly nuanced rendition is another example of his musical diversity, influence, and artistic respect.
Of course, this performance includes his massive international hits from the 1970s, such as “You are the Sunshine of my Life,“ Superstition,” “ Sir Duke,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” all of which visibly bring joy to the audience at MGM, Springfield. Tonight demonstrates that Stevie Wonder is one of the absolute true greats; a man who can still deliver an exciting performance full of meaning, virtuosity, and of course, love.