The Upshot: Onstage for nearly three hours October 7 at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, the soul legend performed Songs in the Key of Life in its entirety along with a string and horn section, backing vocalists and gospel choir.
BY STEVE KLINGE
Is Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder’s best album? Probably not. Its double-album-plus-EP length leaves room for sprawl and diversion that its immediate predecessors Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973) and Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) avoid. But its combination of breadth and depth make it the best example of Wonder’s genius, and it was his last truly great album (although 1980’s Hotter Than July still sounds great).
Last fall, Wonder returned to the stage after a long absence to perform Songs in its entirety, and he rounded out a year of touring the world with a victory lap of return performances in DC, Philadelphia and New York. The Oct. 7 Philly show, at the big Wells Fargo Center, was fantastic.
When he had the full complement of a string section (from the Philadelphia Orchestra), horns, backing vocalists and gospel choir join in, the stage held upwards of thirty musicians. Although occasionally the mix seemed jumbled—too much bass here, some crackles and pops there—the arrangements never seemed busy or grandiose. The core band, led by bassist Nate Watts (who played on the original album), was funky and soulful and jazzy and everything else Wonder required.
The three-hour show began with Wonder greeting the audience with a casual but emphatic speech. He reminisced about his history in Philly, including a sixteenth birthday party that he implied turned wild (although he joked that he couldn’t see it). Songs in the Key of Life is in part a work of social realism—at one point, it was going to be called Let’s See Life the Way It Is—and Wonder told the multi-racial audience, “If this is the City of Brotherly Love, I’m going to challenge you to fix the problems in this country and the rest of the world,” and that “We need to deal with the gun situation in this country” (the shooting at Umpqua Community College occurred just a few days earlier, but Wonder also alluded to the Black Lives Matter movement).
Those comments were fitting introductions to the album’s first track, “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” and the need for love was a constant theme throughout the evening, whether in the songs or in Wonder’s comments. From the start, Wonder showed that he wasn’t interested in a straight re-enactment of the album: he signaled to the band to bring it down so he could stretch “Love’s in Need of Love” with some improvisational scat singing. Although he had a few hoarse moments in the next song, “Have a Talk with God,” Wonder’s voice is still marvelously flexible and expressive at age 65.
The setlist followed the album, with a few diversions. Wonder inserted the EP tracks “Ebony Eyes” into the first set and “All Day Sucker” into the second, and he threw in a few covers: an extended version of the O’Jays’ “Family Reunion” became a showcase for each of the six backing vocalists (Wayna Wondwossen was the standout) and also an opportunity for Wonder to reiterate his plea for unity and for opposition to gun violence; and Wonder began “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing” as a duet with backing vocalist Jazmin Cruz, but then turned it into an extended solo on the harpejji, a finger-tapped string instrument, that gradually turned into Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”—it was magical. That moment was one of many that showed that Wonder was eager to enjoy himself on stage, that he wasn’t resting on past glories (the harpejji is a new instrument, developed less than a decade ago), and that he wanted to share his magnanimous spirit.
There were a few soft spots: a perfunctory “Ordinary Pain,” an overlong sax-and-two-harmonica blowing session during “All Day Sucker,” a bit of clumsy pre-recorded voices in an otherwise funky “Black Man.” Hits such as the big band tribute “Sir Duke” and the funk workout “I Wish” brought the crowd to its feet, but some other songs were surprise highlights: “Village Ghettoland” with only the string section; a stirring gospel version of “Joy Inside My Tears.” Only the instrumental “Contusion,” with its prog-jazz guitars, seemed dated.
After finishing the album with “Another Star,” Wonder almost derailed the evening by returning to the stage and saying that he was now another person, DJ Tick Tick Boom Boom. He acted as if he wanted to start disc jockeying a dance party, playing snippets of “I Can’t Feel My Face” and “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” but interrupting them abruptly by telling the crowd “Y’all not serious!” Then, with the band following his lead, he sat at the keyboard and played snippets of his own hits—“Do I Do,” “All I Do,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”—but cut each of them off after a few lines. It was frustrating and baffling until he redeemed it all by settling into rousing renditions of “Living for the City” and “Superstition.”
“Genius” is a word that is too often used loosely and indiscriminately. It’s still the right one for Stevie Wonder, though.