As the ovation for “Joy Inside My Tears” climaxed, Stevie Wonder remained seated at the acoustic piano to absorb the moment. And as if to keep his silent tears from co-opting his cool, he yelled out, “I need a lil’ drink!” This mutual, uninhibited gratitude between artist and fans served as the ultimate highlight in the Songs In the Key of Life performance staged last Friday at the United Center.
This current tour, a one-month celebration that began in New York City on November 6, brings Stevie’s 1976 magnum opus, a double album released through Motown Records, to the stage. Among the six supporting vocalists in the massive ensemble that included multiple keyboardists, percussionists, horns, and strings, were Aisha Morris — Wonder’s daughter and the “She” in “Isn’t She Lovely,” — and India.Arie, who walked the 24-time Grammy-winning legend onto the stage.
Stevie’s opening words about Chicago being his “second home” were steeped in music history. He recalled how “Fingertips,” his first number-one single, had been performed and recorded at the original Regal Theater in June 1962. The band supporting the 12-year-old harmonica player/vocalist included another young dude named Marvin Gaye playing drums.
The current ensemble supporting Stevie included two musicians from the Songs In the Key of Life album, keyboardist Greg Phillinganes and bass guitarist Nathan Watts. As first heard on the album, Watts and the six-man horn section feasted fiercely on the razor-ripe riffs that propelled “Sir Duke” to its highest heights. Another special addition to the ensemble, harmonica player Frederic Yonnet, joined Stevie and India.Arie for “Have a Talk with God.” “Knocks Me Off My Feet” featured vocalist Keith John and Stevie trading soulful scats. This fun “duel” between the gents proved to be a double victory, as their ears, voices, and imaginations pushed each other to the max.
The evening’s sober moment happened when Stevie paid tribute to the late Dorothy Ashby, who played harp on “If It’s Magic.” “She really sang through her harp,” he said about Ashby, who died in 1986. To honor her cameo contribution, Stevie sang while Ashby’s recorded part served as the sole supporting instrument. “If it’s so magical, why can’t we work it out?” he asked. “If it’s magic, why can’t we make it everlasting?”
From the album’s and evening’s optimistic opener, “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” to the still-relevant “Village Ghetto Love Song,” which revealed raw poverty in a country with excessive riches for the very few, Stevie’s love for life, music, his musicians, and audience displayed itself unabashedly. “Families buying dog food now/Starvation roams the streets/Babies die before they’re born/Infested by the grief,” he sang on the latter, whose lyrics were written by Gary Byrd . “It’s time for a change for the good of everybody, not just the rich but everybody,” he said between songs. Later on, he would make his feelings about the need for gun control known.
These serious, gritty statements were balanced with moments where Stevie’s natural positive mental attitude came through brightly. While “Isn’t She Lovely,” his signature song to new life, played, Aisha Morris glowed while this gift in song played in its entirety. To conclude the evening’s performance, which lasted approximately two-and-a-half hours, Stevie (um) left the stage and became “Deejay Tic Tic Boom!” In this persona, he and the ensemble played excerpts from hit other hit singles not from the album, “For Once In My Life,” “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” “My Cherie Amour,” Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” and “Superstition.”
And as the thousands exited the arena, one could sense the fulfilled, shared vibes that flowed from Stevie to the audience and back again, through “Another Star,” the album’s closing track: “For you there might be another star/But all my heart can hear is your melody.”