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Songs in the key of life 

Review: Stevie Wonder live at Verizon Arena.

VINTAGE KEY MASTER: The incomparable Stevie Wonder rocked at Verizon. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • VINTAGE KEY MASTER: The incomparable Stevie Wonder rocked at Verizon.

Track 1: 'Love's in Need of Love Today'

There's a video on YouTube of Stevie Wonder performing live at the Apollo Theater in 1963, a concert hosted by Motown to showcase its talent roster. Marvin Gaye has just performed, and Wonder is introduced as "Little Stevie Wonder." He is all of 12 years old, a small blind child led out to the center of the stage by an older man in a suit. The host calls him a "genius of our time." He's handed a set of bongos and immediately begins shouting and hand-drumming at a skill-level that seems incongruously funny given his size.

"This is a song called, uh ... 'Fingertips!' he says. "I want you to clap your hands, come on. Everybody. Clap your hands, stomp your feet, jump up and down, do anything you want to do. Yeah. YEAH!"

Then the band starts up. The man who led him onstage returns to replace the bongos with a harmonica the size of a brick. Wonder stands up and gets his bearings, and begins to shred.

A blind 12-year-old onstage in Harlem in front of thousands, his confidence is alien and unsettling. He seems like he's been doing this for a lifetime. That was a half-century ago.

3: 'Village Ghetto Land'

Thursday night we drove across the river to see Wonder play his 1976 album "Songs in the Key of Life" at Verizon Arena. There were exactly 7,856 of us. It was supposed to rain. We waited in line and were warned not to take photos: "Security will find you and you will be escorted out of the venue." Inside, the arena was a crowded bazaar of photo-ops, limited-edition merch booths, funnel cakes, hot dogs and huge black GMC pickups, presumably in case we were looking to purchase a new truck while we were there. We bought $10 beers and found our seats in the vast, bright stadium. The stage was shrouded in blue light, overrun by Wonder's enormous touring apparatus. A team of black-shirted security guards with headsets patrolled the edges. There was a sense of raw, nervous anticipation that seemed almost dangerous — I once saw George W. Bush speak to a convention of Boy Scouts; we waited hours for him to show up; this was like that. The audience hummed at about the decibel level of an airport tarmac. You know Verizon Arena is big, but it still manages to surprise: Some days there are monster trucks here; tonight there was a concert.

The lights fell and we could see a shadowy mass of musicians taking their places on stage. We were all watching the grand piano in the center, waiting to see if Wonder was there yet. He wasn't. A spotlight found him stepping out of the wings on the arm of one of his six backup singers. We stood and howled. He wore a sparkling black kimono-style suit and aviator shades. He looked bald, but for a patch of long braids coming out of the back of his scalp. He looked a little like himself, and a little a character from the movie "Battlefield Earth."

"Hello, Little Rock," he said. "Hello, Arkansas."

Gesturing toward his escort, he said, "The blind have always got to have the fine," and the crowd laughed. He coughed, cleared his throat and said, "Give me an F." The string section — there was a small orchestra to his right consisting of about 20 musicians — played a perfect F. As if to get it out of the way at the top of show, Wonder sang, boldly, I was born in Little Rock, the opening line from "I Was Made To Love Her." When the cheering eventually died down, he admitted, "I wasn't born in Little Rock."

5: 'Sir Duke'

The first thing you notice at a Stevie Wonder concert in 2015 is that his voice is as fluid and potent as ever. It's better than it should be, really, better than is even necessary — we would have been satisfied with far less. He sings as confidently and as powerfully as he ever has, which is an inexplicable physiological feat at 65 years old.

The next thing you notice is that the band — the scale of the whole production — is just too impossibly large and unwieldy to replicate the speed and immediacy and comfortable tautness of the record. The feel is more Broadway musical than Apollo Theater; there is no wild spontaneity, no unscripted solos or accidents. There are too many musicians and the room is too enormous for them to swing or play funk in a way that's loose and weird and truly surprising. It's not that kind of concert. In addition to the string section and the backup singers, there were four percussionists, two keyboardists, two guitarists, a bassist and a six-man horn section — at least in the beginning, this resulted in a kind of lumbering quality; they made chord changes about as cleanly as a semi-truck slamming on brakes. (This was probably also an effect of the room's acoustics, which, again, are as accustomed to monster truck rallies as they are concerts.) Going to see "Songs in the Key of Life" played live decades after its release is, in this sense, a little like going to see the cast of "The Godfather" re-enact the movie onstage: It's undoubtedly cool, it reminds you of the real thing, and you get a buzz off the proximity to celebrity, but you can't help but miss the production value, the direction, the lighting, the movie. The benefits of the experience are real and even profound, but they're categorically different.  

Also, though: None of us cared. Somewhere around "Sir Duke," it occurred to me that this was the biggest concert I'd ever attended. Maybe not in terms of audience numbers — though it'd certainly be close — but in terms of the global familiarity and world-historical importance of the performer. Wonder's peers were Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross; Michael Jackson was a protege. There's hardly anyone else left at his level, no other Motown titans who sustained his degree of cultural relevance. Gaye and Jackson and James Brown and Curtis Mayfield are all gone, and Stevie Wonder is still here, singing as well as he ever has.

Which made it all the stranger when, at one point, my girlfriend asked me his name — his real name — and I realized I didn't know it.

8: 'Pastime Paradise'

My other favorite Stevie Wonder video on YouTube is a medley he performed on "The David Frost Show" in the early '70s. He'd recently become enamored with the talk box, a vocal effects device that redirects the sound of an instrument into a singer's mouth through a long tube, and then into the microphone. The resulting sound is robotic and unusual, similar to a vocoder; Peter Frampton might have been its most famous proponent. The video begins with a shapeless groove, Wonder playing his organ with a plastic tube hanging out of the side of his mouth, bizarrely. He shifts into a short riff for the show's host: David Frost, he warbles, and we love you. And then he shifts again, into the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song "(They Long to Be) Close to You," which had recently been a hit for The Carpenters (Kermit the Frog would later revive it with equal success.) The one that begins, "Why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near?"

It's not even Wonder singing exactly: The pitch comes from his organ, the tone from the talk box. Rendered this way it's a kind of dystopian love song, an electronic, extra-terrestrial ballad. It's gorgeous and haunting. You can tell Wonder is proud of the new device, too, that he can't wait to show it off. It's one of the things I like most about him — that he never treated soul music reverently, never fetishized authenticity or rawness. He embraced technology and genre-fusion eagerly, and it's why he made interesting music for as long as he did.

The talk box made an appearance Thursday night, but Wonder wasn't the one playing it; one of his guitarists did the honors instead. Maybe he's worried about his health — I've heard the talk box tube is bad for your teeth. But it seems more likely that he's just moved on. At one point, toward the end of the show, he brought out a new instrument, one he's only mastered recently. It was a small rectangle with 24 strings. I looked it up later and learned it's called a harpejji, and was only invented in 2007. I like that Wonder is still excited by new instruments. He's not too complacent to practice. He doesn't mind starting all over at the beginning.

On the harpejji, by himself, he played "My Cherie Amour" and then Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," while the crowd held their phones up like cigarette lighters. I noticed cops patrolling the aisles, maybe to make sure nobody got nostalgic and reached for an actual lighter. It was the highlight of the show.

11: 'Isn't She Lovely'

Wonder's stage patter could for the most part be divided into two categories. There were the pronunciation jokes — jokes which were not exactly jokes, just him repeating the same word twice with subtly different pronunciations and then bursting out laughing: "You can sing," he said, for instance, "and you can sang." [Eruption of laughter.] And then there were the vague, New Age, inspirational koans. "It's not about talking about love," he said at one point. "It's about being it."

The show lasted nearly four hours, but Wonder took frequent singing breaks, probably to give his voice a rest. He gave each of his backup singers and most of the individual musicians extended solos; took a substantial intermission; twice brought out a guest harmonica virtuoso; himself played a rousing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on harmonica; and led long, meandering instrumental digressions. Hyperactive lighting rigs sprayed the audience with purple and orange and green light, at times making the stage look like the spaceship in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." This felt a little patronizing, like overused exclamation points.  

As has become typical for arena pop shows, there were two large screens we could watch for close-ups on the performers we couldn't see particularly well from our vantage point, Wonder included. This is always frustrating, because if you're watching a screen you may as well be at home, but they're hard to ignore, given that they do genuinely give you a more intimate view of the action. Strangely, many of the audience members taking camera-phone photos gave up on targeting the stage itself (the iPhone zoom being still pretty primitive) and started taking photos of the screens instead. Which gives you what exactly? Somewhere a graduate student is writing a thesis on this stuff.

15: 'If it's Magic'

It did rain after all. You could hear it toward the end of Wonder's set, during the breaks between songs: thudding sheets of rain that wouldn't let up for the next several hours. We would eventually have to walk out into this, running across three parking lots to reach the car we left in front of a nearby bank. We'd be drenched, our socks and shoes soaking wet.

But Wonder kept playing until late, finishing the album along with a handful of extras. For instance, toward the end of the night, he told us that the next day was his friend Whoopi Goldberg's birthday, and asked if we could please do him a favor. He asked if we could all sing "Happy Birthday" to Whoopi Goldberg. And so we did — because after all, this was not so much to ask.

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