Songs in the Key of Stevie Wonder

Legendary hitmaker melts the Frank Erwin Center

Isn't he lovely? Stevie Wonder at the Frank Erwin Center, 4.4.2015
Isn't he lovely? Stevie Wonder at the Frank Erwin Center, 4.4.2015 (by David Brendan Hall)

In the age of social media when everyone’s a critic, the overuse of superlatives tends to render each assessment meaningless. How many times was Joe Blow’s band “amazing” this week? Then someone like Stevie Wonder shows up. His three-plus hour recreation of the 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life laid out a sprawling extravaganza of song and emotion.

It took nearly 30 musicians, a string section, and a gospel chorus to mirror the 100 or so who participated in the original production. Wonder, 64, dominated the proceedings, but he generously shared the stage, giving featured performers like singer India Arie, harmonica player Frédéric Yonet, backing vocalist Jasmin Cruz and band leader Greg Phillinganes their own time to shine. In between, Wonder proved a master of melody and rhythm, delivering heart songs, protest songs, cold funk, witty humor, spiritual praise, and – above all else – love. He was amazing in every meaning of the word.

Even though Songs in the Key of Life now inches dangerously close to 40 years old its social commentary might still address today’s headlines from Indiana and Ferguson. The album is peppered with songs Wonder described as “the songs of the black experience.” He opened with a short sermon expressing a disdain for hate – “If you hate anyone, you’re blocking your blessing. Until we really love, we’re missing out.” – before launching into tunes like the pioneering “Black Man” and “Village Ghetto Land,” which describes the hopelessness of life in the inner city.

There were also moments of pure joy: the proud horn riffs of “Sir Duke” and the second set opener “Isn’t She Lovely,” with its imaginative harmonica solo. The harmonica was also given special treatment on the instrumental “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call),” with Wonder and Yonet joined by an unnamed saxophonist to set a remarkably languid mood; just one moment among many where seemingly minor parts of the album were revealed to possess unanticipated depth.

Everyone involved returned to the stage for a massive jam medley including “As” and “Another Star” to close the album. Then, Wonder teased all the other hit songs he could fit: “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” before settling on the horns blaring get-down sing along “Superstition.” Approaching midnight, Wonder nearly had to be dragged offstage.

What’s amazing? That so much music can come from one man. May his cries for peace and understanding forever endure.

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Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life, Frederic Yonett, Jasmin Cruz, Greg Phillinganes

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