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Concert Review: Stevie Wonder - Greek Theater 9/5/07

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Toward the end of his Greek Theater appearance on Wednesday, Stevie Wonder called for his daughter – “Aisha!!!” – as a familiar drum/bass line crept out of the background, and the band swung into Isn’t She Lovely, the song written about her some thirty-odd years ago. For a few seconds, the Jumbotron screens were filled with the two of them, Stevie bobbing back and forth intensely, Aisha gazing at him with great love as he began to sing.

Isn’t she lovely, isn’t she wonderful
Isn’t she precious, less than one minute old
I can’t believe what God has done
From us he’s given life to one
Isn’t she lovely, made from love

It was a moment that sounds like it’s being played for corn, and I’m sure they do this every night on tour, but every person there bought it. It was, like so many moments that evening, incredibly moving.

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Stevie Wonder’s songs have a way of getting to the heart of the matter. During two and a half hours on stage, he got to the heart of a lot of things. Big stuff. His mother’s death, which he explained during a brief monologue at the opening was the inspiration for this exceedingly rare road trip, and described hearing a spectral voice that said “Boy, you better get your ass out of bed!” Injustice, leading the audience through a chant of “Stop the war! Stop the killing!” during a shockingly powerful rendition of Visions. Enlightenment, bringing the crowd to its feet with that unstoppable clarinet riff that kicks off Higher Ground, all of us pledging to Keep On Tryin’. Love, so many times, so beautifully, never more so than during a sparkling Ribbon In The Sky. And even Fun, celebrating the good old days of doctor-playing in I Wish.

Wonder’s disappearance from the road these last twenty years, making only brief appearances at benefits, created an insane demand for tickets, evidenced by a full page of frantic Craigslist postings begging, pleading for help getting in (one of them from this writer). The crowd was his to lose, and he gave generously. Nearly all his biggest hits pre-1980 were given full readings, the medley treatment only kicking in for about five tunes at the end. Enthusiasts got deep-album cuts, many of them from the beloved 1972 album Innervisions. He joked and told stories in between, at one point getting the audience to sing along with a country two-step rendition of Signed, Sealed, Delivered. “No, y’all ain’t doing it right, listen up. ‘Aaahm’s yoooooors’”, he drawled in a perfect Johnny Cash. And then he made us do it over until we got it right. Sheesh. No wonder his band is so tight.

Well, they’d have to be, to keep up with him. His singing, harmonica playing, keyboard playing, and ability to fully inhabit every fiber of a piece of music, are all completely intact. They don’t damn MAKE singers like this anymore. A couple of years ago at Live 8, he handed the mic out to Rob Thomas and Adam Levine for a few verses apiece. (Maybe not the most robust choices for modern singers you could think of, but they are pop icons who are widely considered to be able to “actually sing.”) Needless to say, he made mincemeat out of everything that came near him. It was like watching Mike Tyson fight your grandmother. They’d fart out a couple of technically accurate lines, relatively in tune which is apparently some kind of miracle these days, bask in glorious shit-eating grins for half a second, and then fall under the wheels as Stevie let out a single “Ooooh baby!” It was some funny shit. Clearly he’s still a force to be reckoned with.

Given his generosity with the mic, it seemed possible that an LA show might have more of the same, with every celebrity from Snoop to Jack Black showing up for their two lines. Thankfully the only guest brought out was opera singer Anita Johnson, introduced as the daughter of Wonder’s recently departed friend Alfred Johnson, to sing When I Fall In Love. This is, admittedly, a gorgeous song that can stand up to a voice as hysterical as Celine Dion’s and retain some amount of grace. In the hands of Johnson and Wonder, particularly against this backdrop of loss, it was an emotional stunner, and an unexpected high point in a night full of obvious ones.

The end of the night came earlier than expected, Wonder leading the band through a final set apparently made up on the fly, leaving the stage at 11 sharp and never coming back out. Too bad, as I’d read they were doing You Haven’t Done Nothing during the encores at earlier shows and that would have gone down exceptionally well. I also noticed a small drumkit set up at stage left, presumably for Stevie, which he never got around to. But small complaints about what we DIDN’T get seem terribly un-generous on a night like this.

At least we Angelenos usually get to see him at Christmastime, usually doing a half hour at the House Full Of Toys benefit amidst a bunch of current R&B stars. There'll probably be one this year and given Stevie's newfound interest in long sets, you might want to think about going to that.

As it is, I'm calling gig of the year.

Setlist:

Love's in Need of Love Today / Too High / Visions / Living For the City / Master Blaster (Jammin') / Higher Ground / Golden Lady /Ribbon in the Sky / Overjoyed / Can't Imagine Love Without You/ You and I/ Lately/ How Will I Know (with Aisha Morris) / Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing / Signed, Sealed, Delivered / Memphis, Tennessee / Boogie On Reggae Woman / My Cherie Amour / When I Fall in Love (with Anita Johnson) / MEDLEY: I Wish, Sir Duke, Isn't She Lovely, You Are the Sunshine of My Life / Superstition / I Just Called to Say I Love You (fragment & Stevie monologue) / Another Star

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Photos by clydeng via flickr, taken at last week's Concord Pavillion show.