Stevie Wonder, November 14, 2014: Shows I’ll Never Forget

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At the United Center, Chicago: “I am singing of love from my heart,” Stevie Wonder proclaims in as part of “Ngiculela — Es Una Historia — I Am Singing.” That phrase set the tone for the November 14, 2014 Chicago stop of his Songs in the Key of Life Performance tour, a celebration of Wonder’s sprawling 1976 masterpiece. Backed by over 30 musicians, Wonder treated the United Center audience to a heartfelt exploration of the entire 21-track album, then bid farewell by playing samples of a fraction of his best-known hits. His voice remained virtually unchanged, and his energy never flagged during a nearly three-hour set.

Instead of merely replicating each Songs track, Wonder incorporated new arrangements and instruments while still paying tribute to the original versions. Being an ambitious work encompassing various genres, Songs in the Key of Life demands a huge instrumental section. Several notable musicians accompanied the legend, including occasional singing partner India.Arie and daughter Aisha Morris on backing vocals. Two artists joined Stevie Wonder who played on the original recording: bassist Nathaniel Watts and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes. Full horn and string sections added drama and soul to several numbers, and an army of backup singers at times served as a choir. Wonder alternated among different keyboards, an upright piano, harmonicas, and the electric stringed Harpejii — as Wonder demonstrated his mastery of the relatively new instrument.

The sweeping work and Wonder’s earnest vocals enticed the audience to dance, sing, laugh, and cry throughout the evening. He stood alone in front of the string section to sing “Village Ghetto Land,” a still relevant track exposing inner city violence and poverty. “Politicians laugh and drink; drunk to all demands,” he cried, adding “still in 2014.” Even though the song dates from 1976, he illustrated, little has changed.

Not surprisingly, “I Wish” and “Sir Duke” received the most enthusiastic receptions of the night, with the crowd dancing in the stands. When he cried out the “Sir Duke” line “Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand,” he subsequently proved that notion with “Joy Inside My Tears.” A tale of redemption and ultimate joy, the lyrics inspired a particularly emotional performance from Wonder. He fluctuated between singing to a lover and to God; by the track’s end, he broke down in tears. When a backup singer brought him a towel, Wonder dabbed his eyes as the audience rose to their feet.

The concert was full of small but significant moments: daughter Morris beaming at her father as he performed “Isn’t She Lovely,” a song he wrote celebrating her birth; Wonder clasping hands with Arie as they duetted on “Ngiculela — Es Una Historia — I Am Singing”; and the trio of two harmonicas and a saxophone riffing off each other during “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call).”

Another stirring moment occurred when Wonder stood alone onstage, introducing the poetic “If It’s Magic.” He explained his concept behind the song — that we know love is magic and the stuff of life, yet “we just can’t get it right,” he said — but was initially unsure of the arrangement. Jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby provided the inspiration, adding a crucial and, yes, magical element to an already beautiful and deeply philosophical track. She died ten years after Songs in the Key of Life was released; in order to pay tribute to her, Wonder elected to sing to her original backing track. The result left the audience silent, taking in the beautiful harp and Wonder’s emotive voice. “It holds the key to every heart, throughout the universe,” he sang, his voice soaring. “It fills you up without a bite, and quenches every thirst.” The words hold transcendent meaning, and his simple yet powerful performance entranced the crowd.

Concluding with the ebullient and samba-inflected “Another Star,” Stevie Wonder appeared ready to continue the upbeat spirit. For the encore, he announced a new persona: “DJ Tick Tick Boom.” Playfully parodying radio announcers, he called upon different band members to start particular riffs. This turned out to be his way of performing a medley of hits, usually just the first verse and chorus. “I know, I know, you don’t like it when I stop the song,” he chuckled. “But I’m DJ Tick Tick Boom!” The audience remained on their feet as he tore through samples of his classics: “Do I Do,” “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” “For Once in My Life,” “My Cherie Amour,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” The night ended with “Superstition,” an enthusiastic rendition that emphasized its deep funk roots.

Normally, I do not inject myself into my reviews, but I must make a rare exception here: Songs in the Key of Life has played a significant role in my life. My parents gave me the album when I was five years old, and it was the first non-children’s music collection I ever owned. Each song provided an education in music, and as I grew older, I learned lessons from Wonder’s insightful lyrics. “Black Man” preached diversity, while tracks like “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “If It’s Magic,” and “Ngiculela — Es Una Historia — I Am Singing” taught me about the enduring power of love. “Village Ghetto Land” opened my eyes to social issues, and “Another Star” exposed me to world music. In short, Stevie Wonder’s words address love and acceptance of oneself and others, and provide lessons in tolerance and forgiveness. These are topics that everyone should learn, and Songs in the Key of Life represents some of my earliest schooling in such important matters.

I’ve carried Songs in the Key of Life with me from grammar school to college to graduate school, and it is one of those albums that I can truly say changed my life. During the concert, I reflected on when I used to play the album first on my Mickey Mouse phonograph, then re-bought it once I owned my first real stereo. (I wore out the first copy.) I may have never become a music journalist without this album, and hearing Stevie Wonder perform the entire Songs in the Key of Life was an exhilarating moment that will always remain with me.

Set List, November 14, 2014, Chicago, Illinois:
SET 1
Love’s in Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God (with India.Arie)
Village Ghetto Land
Contusion
Sir Duke
I Wish
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Pastime Paradise
Summer Soft
Ordinary Pain
Saturn (with India.Arie)
Ebony Eyes
SET 2
Isn’t She Lovely
Joy Inside My Tears
Black Man
All Day Sucker
Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing (with India.Arie)
If It’s Magic
As
Another Star (with India.Arie and entire band)
ENCORE
Do I Do / Master Blaster / For Once In My Life / My Cherie Amour / Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours
Superstition

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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