By Dave Douglas
Songs in the Key of Life is about life itself in all its aspects and on Nov. 25 at the Air Canada Centre, Stevland Hardaway Judkins, aka Stevie Wonder, took us on a musical journey of jubilation, introspection and even sadness.
This was part of an 11 U.S. city tour with only one Canadian stop, Toronto.
Released in September 1976 from Motown, his diamond-selling album Songs in the Key of Life won four Grammy Awards in 1977: Album of the Year, Producer of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance and Best R&B Performance (I Wish).
This album is considered by some music critics as his best album work. It has been preserved in the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress, which called it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Lights at the Air Canada Centre went dim as a spotlight fell on two figures slowly approaching the front of the stage. Standing in front was the man everyone in the audience was waiting to see, Mr. Stevie Wonder, accompanied by the gorgeous India.Arie.
Wonder addressed his audience saying, “Praise God. We are here in Toronto!” They clapped and cheered in response. He reminded them that Canada’s Kitchener was the first international city he visited as a young performing artist at the start of his career.
After acknowledging India.Arie, his main guest artist, he reminisced about the making of his double album collection of 17 songs and a bonus four-song EP. And in his typical whimsical fashion, he gave a little anecdote about the fact it took two years to make the album, which led to his people creating a T-shirt that said “We’re Almost Finished.”
Before he started the concert, Wonder gave kudos to band conductor Gregory ‘Greg’ Phillinganes, and to bass player Nate Watts (both played on the original album). Like Wonder, they were both born in Detroit.
Every one of his songs usually triggers some memory of an event or period but this is typical of Wonder. As a singer/songwriter, he is pure genius. As a witness to this live presentation of this ambitious collection of songs, it is with great difficulty to choose just seven songs to highlight from the night but to cover Wonder would go beyond a mere article.
Wonder opened with the song Love’s in Need of Love Today. His voice still rich with vibrant clarity. Like good wine, it is getting better with age. Midway in the song, Wonder took a solo on piano while scatting in unison right to the end of the song to the delight of the cheering crowd.
In Village Ghetto Land, he does a beautiful interpretation of a classic with a modern twist and ended this poignant song with an improvised lyric, “… in 2014, we are still living in a village ghetto land.”
A blast from the horns section, and the audience – recognizing the familiar melody – were off their seats as if on cue. They were ready for what came next, Sir Duke! This one was special; it signaled party time! And that they did.
The band then went straight into another smasher I Wish – his Grammy-winning hit – with bass player Watts laying into a deep, heavy groove. The horn arrangements with the breaks in between sounded brilliant.
To slow things down, Wonder delivered Knock Me Off My Feet – one of his personal favourites – with the audience chiming in on the chorus singing “I don’t want to bore you with it … Oh but I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Wonder is known to be great for interacting and engaging his audience and this time he chose to add an improvised chant singing “I, I, I, I”, starting a playful competition with his backup singer Keith John where each round he made the vocal exercise a bit more difficult. In the end he declared himself the winner of all five rounds. The crowd went wild.
Freestyle jam is always great fun to watch as musicians trade licks, improvise melodies and just have all- out fun. So when bassist Watts opened a jam and Wonder announced “We have a nasty and funky horn section and they’re gonna give you some of that nasty stuff. It’s all about music!”
Folks knew it was time to see and hear musicianship at its best. This jazz fusion groove was all about propulsive rhythm and high energy. Wonder brought on some musicians from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO). First up was a violin player who was soon joined by other TSO players in the jam session. Wonder then hummed a melody and had each section repeat it. Later he joined in on harmonica.
At the beginning of As, Wonder shouts “Yeah! Yeah! Are you ready?” The crowd answered “yeah,” and the band starts As with Wonder saying, “Sing it! Let me hear you sing.”
Wonder says, “This is for you” and shouts of “yeah” filled the air! This groove was in full force with the entire band on stage: strings, horns, guitarists, keyboard players, back up singers, a choir, and rhythm section. As is it!
The night was filled with plenty of magnificent moments that will be remembered for a long time to come but all good things must come to an end, so the evening ended with Wonder singing one of his favourite hits Superstition and one can only wonder that after three hours of audience participation, clapping, dancing, waving, singing, if the crowd was tired. But, no! They wanted more and finally went home exhausted but still ready for more.
As Toronto pannist Earl LaPierre Jr. commented: “I think I witnessed a living legend!”
Blind from birth, Wonder was referred to as a musical child prodigy by age 12. Fast-forward to 2014, Stevie Wonder, 64, has won 22 Grammy Awards, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983, and into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. In 1996, he was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Along with the 10-piece string ensemble from TSO, the concert also included a local choir. Under the musical direction of Philliganes, the touring band comprised over 20 musicians including as a back-up singer, Aisha Morris, 39; Stevie’s daughter – immortalized in his song Isn’t She Lovely.
The three-hour concert was a treat. He performed all 21 songs on the album with six encore songs selected from his vast repertoire of hits from his 50-year career. If you weren’t there, then you truly missed out on a serious musical buffet!
Alicia Sealey contributed to reporting for this review.