Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Stevie Wonder On Tour

I've always been a big fan of Stevie Wonder and his music. I found the following article in yesterday's edition of The Wall Street Journal:

The Wonder Who Is Stevie

You hear Stevie Wonder's influence everywhere in contemporary pop and R&B. The use of synthesized polyrhythms, lyrics that report on inner-city life, romantic ballads that soar to their peak: If we can't say Mr. Wonder invented these staples of today's scene, let's agree that no one's ever done them better. As a vocalist, his impact is unsurpassed; R&B singer and producer Raphael Saadiq once told me, "Everybody who has a tone tries to sing like Stevie." Today's R&B and hip-hop stars see him as a man who rose from Motown's stable of artists to seize control of his own musical destiny as a songwriter, producer and performer. As such, he's the model for the pop entrepreneur.

While Mr. Wonder's influence is ubiquitous, he isn't. His current tour, which began in San Diego on Aug. 23, is his first in 12 years. (He's done the occasional one-off benefit and private performance.) It's a curiously brief tour: only 13 dates in small and midsize venues, including two at wineries, in late summer as vacations end and students head back to school. But to my mind, any opportunity to see Mr. Wonder perform is an event, given his gift and how he's presented it for four decades. I attended the second show on the tour, on Saturday, at Harveys Lake Tahoe Casino and Resort's outdoor stage, as excited as I've been for a show in years.

Though not without some trepidation. Mr. Wonder's most recent album of new material, 2005's "A Time 2 Love" (Motown), was his first in a decade and was fairly tepid, at least by his high standards. That, and his lengthy absence from the stage, hinted at a cooling passion, though Mr. Wonder is only 57 years old and seems in robust health. Two Web sites dedicated to him, and, suggest neglect. Compare them to sites associated with some of his greatest contemporaries --, or, for example -- and you'll insist he deserves the kind of lovingly comprehensive overview these others receive.

But as the moon rose over Heavenly Mountain (and the garish glass-and-steel casinos and hotels), Mr. Wonder arrived onstage and quickly dispelled any fears that his fire has diminished. Joined by his daughter Aisha Morris -- a singer who made her recording debut as a newborn less than 1 minute old on "Isn't She Lovely," on her father's 1976 album "Songs in the Key of Life" -- Mr. Wonder took a moment to thank the audience and dedicate the tour to his late mother. Then he sat with his daughter at a grand piano and performed a flawless "Love's in Need of Love Today." It was a touching moment, and one that foreshadowed the intensity of the evening's performance.

Backed by 11 musicians, Mr. Wonder easily shifted from ballads to crackling up-tempo numbers. Of the former, "Visions" and "Overjoyed" allowed him to display his prowess as a singer, especially in the upper register, using his characteristic flights of note-bending vocalese known as melisma with seeming ease. (Blaming Mr. Wonder for the overused, often poorly executed melisma in today's "American Idol" school of pop singing would be as off the mark as blaming Miles Davis for smooth jazz: A good idea done well by some has been bludgeoned into cliché by the imitative and less gifted.) In "Golden Lady," which simmered with an undertone reminiscent of "Mercy, Mercy Me" by Marvin Gaye, Mr. Wonder's former drummer and Motown colleague, and in "Ribbon in the Sky," he pushed the technique to an extreme, challenging the band, especially bassist Nathan Watts, to find a way to respond.

The up-tempo songs from his mid-'70s albums reminded us how Mr. Wonder blended rock's boiling undertones with the urgency of soul, as the insistent sound of his synthesizer set the groove in "Higher Ground" and allowed the tension to mount as he ushered in "Living for the City." Yet "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)," which came at the end of his classic soul period, hinted that that kind of interplay was already in his jazz-inflected work. For the song, he moved from the synth back to the grand piano and performed a descending bass line that revealed the funk and snap he'd carry forward.

Charming, effusive, Mr. Wonder was in a mischievous mood throughout the evening. "I'm a blind man with a shotgun," he declared to anyone who'd think to approach his daughter. He told a long story of how he came to write "My Cherie Amour" -- he was a young teen and wanted to impress a resistant girl, and Mr. Wonder did both coy voices to explain how the attempt at conquest unfolded. Realizing drummer Chris Johnson was having an extraordinary night -- his cymbal play on "Master Blaster (Jammin')" dazzled -- Mr. Wonder, a terrific drummer in his own right, suggested they'd have a one-on-one battle behind the kits before the tour was over. At the end of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)," he shifted into a country version of the song, prompting the audience to sing with a twang. A few bars of Ernest Tubbs's "Walking the Floor Over You" followed.

But his most playful moments came during the music. He compelled the band to stutter, stop and start during a fierce "I Wish," which came out of a knotty "Sir Duke," his tribute to Ellington, Basie and those who preceded him as an inspiring bandleader. He toyed with the riff of "Superstition," playing off the beat and showing the song's roots in both rock and jazz. He extended the ending of the Latin-flavored "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" and, later, offered a snippet of Chick Corea's "Spain."

Throughout the evening, the audience -- middle-aged couples, teens, parents with their kids -- was enthralled, singing and dancing along. From my perch in the bleachers, I couldn't help but notice that with Mr. Wonder, you don't just clap on the two and four: His music makes you a polyrhythmic machine too, tapping your feet on the one and three, bobbing your head between beats, and swaying as you smile. Suddenly, if only for a few hours, everybody's got soul.

I walked away beaming. Never for a moment was there a sense that Mr. Wonder's best days are behind him. In the presence of his talent and energy, it was far from a foolish thought to believe that he will continue to add to his legacy.


• McMenamins Edgefield Amphitheater Troutsdale, Ore., Thursday
• Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, Woodinville Wash., Friday
• The Mountain Winery, Saratoga, Calif., Sept. 4
• Greek Theater, Los Angeles, Sept. 5
• Charter One Pavillion, Chicago, Sept. 10
• Meadow Brook Music Festival, Rochester Hills, Mich., Sept. 12
• Chastain Park, Atlanta, Sept. 14
• Pier 6 Concert Pavilion, Baltimore, Sept 16
• Radio City Music Hall, New York Sept. 18


At August 29, 2007 2:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can never figure out how you get such timely information posted on your blog, but I'm thankful that you do. Keep on, keepin' on both Stevie and Dave.

At December 06, 2007 6:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well written! WE saw his show last night in Dallas. UNBELIEVABLE! It was truly a night to remember and I feel so fortunate to have seen Stevie in this lifetime. We were all in the presence of greatness. Truly he is a legend in music and in life. If we had more people like him in this world....What a world it would be. Peace


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