On March 17th, 2015, Stevie Wonder kicked off his “Songs in the Key of Life Performance” tour with a bang at the Pepsi Center. The concert was full of surprises, hits, deep cuts, jams, and made sure the audience was captivated the entire time. Unlike most Stevie Wonder concerts, this was not designed to be a crowd pleasing greatest hits show. Wonder performed the entirety of his Grammy Award winning 1977 classic double album, Songs in the Key of Life, albeit with a few curveballs.
I was lucky enough to attend the concert for a slight student discount with my class for “Music in American Culture”, due to Mark Davenport knowing the guitarist of Steve Wonder’s band. We initially purchased nosebleed seats, but for some reason (some people suggested to fill up the crowd) we were able to move almost to the floor seats for free. The view was better, but my relief was that I wouldn’t trip and fall off of the steep Pepsi Center nosebleed stairs.
With my life secured, the show began. I was particularly excited for the first part of the show because I love the first side of Songs in the Key of Life. Nobody was sure whether or not Stevie Wonder would play the album in chronological order, but it was confirmed when album opener “Love’s in Need of Love Today” was the concert opener. As the concert progressed, it was clear that although Wonder was playing the album; he was doing it in whatever way he pleased. For example, jazz fusion instrumental piece “Contusion” was much more exciting live than off of the album cut. The musicians were far tighter, and emphasis was made on perfectly timed hits to equal the fusion shredding of groups such as Return To Forever. Stevie Wonder had a plethora of musicians at his disposal. For the song “Village Ghetto Land”, instead of performing the song on a synthesized string orchestra patch as he does on the album, he brought out an actual small string orchestra. While hits such as “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” were show stopping, my favorite part of the first half of the performance was the string of “Pastime Paradise”, “Summer Soft”, and “Ordinary Pain”. The way those songs flow into one another on the album was just as awe-inspiring live, and with all of the musical curveballs in those songs even those who weren’t familiar with the album’s deep cuts could get into it.
After an intermission, the second half of the show/album began with Stevie Wonder speaking out against the Stand Your Ground law. Many people don’t realize how political Wonder is in his music, because his hits aren’t political, but he made his point by pledging to donate $150,000 from the tour to a fundraiser against Stand Your Ground laws. “Isn’t She Lovely” opened up the second half of the concert, in which Mr. Wonder decided to shred on the harmonica for a while. Personally, I’m not a big listener of the second side of Songs, the songs are all very long and dense, but it’s Stevie Wonder; I knew I would be fine. If anything, long dense songs are better experienced live. However, Stevie kept it interesting, going into Michael Jackson covers on a crazy stringed instrument called the harpejji, which he also performed an amazing improvised solo on. Even I was shocked on that one, Wonder’s musical genius was on a level that I didn’t even realize.
My personal highlight of the show was the surprise jam with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, two of the world’s greatest living jazz pianists. They were performing at another venue, and decided to drop by and jam with Stevie afterwards. The two performed on the song, “As”, but the real highlight was when Herbie Hancock was goaded by Wonder into performing his classic “Watermelon Man” with Wonder’s band. While Herbie was awesome, fellow KRCXer Connor McNeir and I were both disappointed that Chick Corea didn’t feel like shredding the ivories like we knew he was capable of.
Although the performance was for bigger fans, Stevie Wonder ended the show by coming out and DJing his hits. The band would go into whatever song he would DJ, until they finally decided on “Superstition” as their closer. All in all, the show was fantastic; two and a half hours of classic music. It was a true honor just to watch one of the few remaining geniuses of the Rock N’ Roll era perform, and I’d recommend going to see him while you still can.
-- Sye Sharp