Sunday, November 16, 2014, Wells Fargo Arena, Philadelphia, Pa.
Stevie Wonder took the stage, and all of the 18,000-plus people at Wells Fargo Arena rose to their feet to see the man who provided the music soundtrack for so many in attendance.
“They say people in Philly know their music,” Wonder said, to which the crowd cheered. “We’re gonna see if that’s true tonight.”
Wonder then got down to the business of why he was in Philadelphia in the first place; to take us back in time to 1976, when he was the undisputed dominant artist and “Songs in the Key of Life” was the album of that year.
Wonder jumped into his first song, the powerful “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” which set the mood for the entire concert, sending a wave of good vibes all through the arena.
His voice limber and strong, Wonder gave an epic performance for three ½ hours. Wonder’s musicianship was sharp and his band was huge with nearly three dozen musicians that included two drummers, two guitarists, three keyboardists, a 12-piece string ensemble, six background singers, and a six-piece horn section. The band was exquisitely dynamic and versatile, alternating between mellow ballads and mid-tempo grooves to soaring ultra-rhythmic melodies that made the crowd move and groove. Wonder brought a taste of Detroit with him on the tour, as Motown natives and noted musicians Greg Phillinganes (keyboards) and Nate Watts (bass) both originally played on “Songs in the Key of Life.”
Wonder went to work, performing the biggest hits off the album including “Sir Duke,” and “I Wish,” which threw the crowd into an even bigger frenzy. With synchronized lighting to accentuate the mood and texture of the show, Wonder flexed his musician chops, alternating from his clavinet electric piano to a baby grand piano, and showing everyone he’s still one of the best harmonica players in the world of soul music. His vocal back-and-forth battle with background singer Keith John, son of R&B legend Little Willie John was classic, as John even gave a brief rendition of his father’s biggest hit, “Fever.”
India.Arie (whose mother was once signed to Motown and was an opening act for Stevie in the 60’s) accompanied Wonder on a number of duets like “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia” fared well enough, but it was her fashionable Afro-Caribbean dresses and head wraps that mainly drew applause from the audience. Wonder did a stirring delivery of “Isn’t She Lovely” with his beautiful daughter and background singer Aisha, who inspired the song, by his side.
“Fellas, don’t be looking at my daughter,” Wonder said, to which the crowd roared in laughter. “Unless you got some money.”
Wonder rolled thru the album classics, from the romantic tunes “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and “Joy Inside My Tears” to the socially relevant songs, “Village Ghetto Land,” and “Pastime Paradise.” Wonder sang a heartfelt solo on “If It’s Magic,” using the original track that featured Dorothy Ashby on harp, his voice trembling at times.
To end the “Songs in the Key of Life,” performance, Wonder gave a rousing version of “As” before closing out with “Another Star,” which had the crowd rocking to his finale. But it wasn’t over. With the crowd still cheering on, and not quite ready to leave, Wonder teased us, portraying himself as “DJ Tick-Tick BOOM,” and reeling off segments of his hits, including “My Cherie Amour,” “Master Blaster Jammin’,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” and “Superstition” among others.
While it was great to hear Wonder go through his classics, it was also quite frustrating as each song lasted only for a couple of minutes as he would mix out to the next song, as DJ’s often do. Still, two minutes of a Stevie Wonder classic tune is better than nothing, and the concert itself was nothing short of brilliant.
To witness Stevie Wonder perform live at this stage of his career something akin to observing Haley’s Comet. It’s something that you’ll cherish for the rest of your life because you never know if you’ll see it again. At 64 years of age, Stevie Wonder is a lion in winter now, no longer in his music prime, the once prodigious force of nature who dominated the 70’s decade, cranking out hit song after hit song as well as owning the Grammy Awards. (He has a record 22 Grammys)
“Songs in the Key of Life” is Stevie’s magnum opus, the one album that will probably come to define him above all of his stellar body of work. Wonder both set the capacity crowd on fire and cooled them off, at times simultaneously, and they were appreciative to see a genius at work. I think it’s safe to say Stevie Wonder is a music artist for the ages, a phenomenally gifted genius who has reached the pinnacle of his craft many times over. And I for one couldn’t be happy to witness a music master whose career spans my entire life.
If you get a chance to see Stevie Wonder on this short tour, by all means, please do. You won’t be disappointed. And it was a concert I’ll always remember and cherish.