LIVE: Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life at the Nokia Theater (L.A.)
by Paul T
Honestly. When older people remind you that “they don’t make music the way they used to” or that “today’s music just don’t compare to music back in the day,” they are right.
While this rational does not apply to hip-hop, generally the older folks are right, if they are talking about the right songs or the right album. I have not paid to attend a concert in a few years, but this was Songs In The Key Of Life. As great as Aja, Rumours, or Gaucho were, those albums are not Songs In The Key Of Life. And I thought to myself, what album from my generation would I want to hear from start to finish, that I would pay for. Maybe Illmatic? This Is Not A Love Song, definitely, Midnight Marauders, probably, Channel Orange, too many hipsters, the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, maybe if I like 3 hour waits and if she shows up at all. Again, this was Songs In The Key Of Life, I got my tickets within fifteen minutes of them going on sale.
For his annual House Full of Toys Benefit, Stevie Wonder performed Songs In The Key Of Life in its entirety, in order, with “A Something Extra” tracks split between the first set and the second set. “All Day Sucker” and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)” in the middle of the second set, and “Saturn” and “Ebony Eyes” at the end of the first set before Intermission.
The incredible and unforgettable evening began with Stevie Wonder appearing on stage with his children and grandson to thank the crowd for coming. He informed us that he was “pissed” that he had a sore throat at last year’s House Full of Toys, and he knew he wanted to do something different if he was given the opportunity to perform at this event again. After a short performance by a choir and a holiday song, Robert DeNiro introduced the Songs In The Key Of Life album, via video, and the performance started with “Love’s In Need of Love Today.” Even though the song is mid-tempo, I could feel the energy going through the crowd, as people were saying “wow,” and waving their hands and shaking their heads in disbelief that they were about to hear the entire album, live. Backed by five well dressed male vocalists in suits, and his first special guest, Joe, “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” was the perfect concert opener.
Stevie was joined by Frederic Yonnet and Blues Traveler’s John Popper for the poignant funky harmonica track, “Have A Talk With God.” Then, Stevie left his keyboards, and stood on stage and sang, “Village Ghetto Land” with a full string section. Hearing the song on CD, vinyl, or even MP3 with its stark and harsh lyrics juxtaposed with the beautiful string arrangement is one thing. Hearing it live, with Stevie’s voice in perfect pitch and great acoustics and perfect sounding strings, is a like a beautiful sonic evaluation of society. Stevie adlibbed a few additional lines about injustice in 2013, and the entire audience was enthralled by the overwhelming truth and emotion of the song. Chick Corea joined Stevie on stage for the funky keyboard, organ driven “Contusion.”
The next four songs were “Sir Duke,” “I Wish,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and “Pastime Paradise.” (Reread that again if you must.) The entire crowd was up on their feet and waiving their hands for “Sir Duke” and “I Wish.” Eric Benet, Keith John, and Joe joined Stevie on stage for the latter, and seemed to be having as good of a time as the audience.
The hardcore fans and the soul music heads went crazy when the few notes of “Knocks Me Off My Feet” played. And then, as Stevie sang the first few words of the second verse, he stopped singing, and his face was overcome by emotion and was on the brink of tears. He kept playing the piano, gathered himself and sang the hook, joined in very audibly by the hardcore fans in the audience. This is one of my top three Stevie Wonder songs, if not my favorite. I sat there singing along in amazement, and I too, felt the emotion. “This is a LOVE song,” I thought. It is purely a love song, if “Love” has a song or a soundtrack, it would be “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” Stevie gave the song an extension and brought down the volume slightly, and then repeated the of “Oh but I love you, I love you, I love you,” as the entire audience now sang along. Love, not lust, not commitment, not sex; just love, and I felt it.
Similar to “Village Ghetto Land,” the message of “Pastime Paradise” was felt about one thousand times more live than on record. Backed by both the West Angeles Church of God in Christ Choir and the Hare Krishna Los Angeles Choir, the strings and Stevie’s lyrics hit your mind, ears, and heart like a sonic blades.
The breezy, yet, heartbreaking “Summer Soft,” made the hardcore fans and soul heads smile again, as Eric Benet sounded pretty damn good, taking over a few verses. Ledisi and Shirley Brewer killed it on the break down of “Ordinary Pain.” India.Arie and Stevie sounded heavenly and made all of us feel like relocating to “Saturn,” and the first set of the concert closed out with saxophonist Mike Phillips joining Stevie Wonder on “Ebony Eyes.” Stevie moved to an old school wooden piano for this track. While there is an element of lust and want on “Ebony Eyes,” the overwhelming majority of the song is still about admiration and adoration of beauty. I thought to myself, “Shit, this is a far cry from ‘Sweet Black Pussy’ or Chester French’s ‘Black Girls.'”
As I walked out to the restroom during intermission, I heard a man commenting that “it just so amazing that he (Stevie Wonder) can make music that is so warm.” I laughed to myself, as he was talking to a woman, wondering if it was “game” on his part. I also laughed because he was right. Stevie Wonder’s music is full of life, humanity, introspection, genuineness, depth, sincerity, and yes, warmth. While there are always exceptions with each era, the truth is as time moved on, from the 1970s to the 1980s, to the 1990s, new millennium, post millennium; popular music has slowly moved away from life, humanity, genuineness, sincerity, and again, warmth. I wondered if Drake ever get so emotional rapping/singing/talk singing on “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” or “Marvin’s Room,” that he might cry. I thought about R. Kelly, whose best music does have warmth and humanity in abundance, but is best known for his sex songs. Most of current popular music is simply left with lust and shrugging cynicism, sometimes disguised as emotions. And I love lust and cynicism as much as any modern twenty/thirty something, but my heart and soul was so thrilled to experience real genuine soul music.
The second set started with “Isn’t She Lovely,” which Stevie substituted singing the lyrics with playing the harmonica to the tune of the verses and choruses. “Joy Inside My Tears” was honest and poignant. “Black Man,” “All Day Sucker,” “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call),” and “Ngiculela Es Una Historia – I Am Singing,” were all great songs, in particular “All Day Sucker,” with John Mayer appearing on guitar and Ledesi on vocals. However, the audience seemed to be emotionally exhausted from the first set, and while there was still a glow in the crowd, the energy lowered a few levels.
The audience perked up for the slow reflective ballad, “If It’s Magic,” and was back in fever pitch and excitement after the first few notes of “As,” which had Herbie Hancock appearing on the keyboards. Everyone was either standing or waving their hands for “Another Star,” which was the grand finale, as nearly all the special guests and Stevie’s kids and grandson joined him on stage.
After the show, the crowd slowly piled out, wishing for an encore and not wanting to leave. There would be no encore. It was not needed. We just heard a classic album, a life changing album in its entirety, performed by a musical genius who still sounded incredible. For me, it reaffirmed love and life, brought me to smile, laugh, sing along, hug, and kiss. I had wondered whether or not I still appreciate music, whether or not it still moved me — whether or not it is still relevant in my life. Honestly, most of today’s music isn’t. I have not been that excited about new music, new artists, new albums, new singles. I have spent most of my time driving in silence, or listening to news radio and traffic reports. But this night made me believe in music again: in lyrics, melodies, groove, basslines, strings — in love and in the message. Even if the whole world leans towards the cynicism and lust and emptiness disguised as soul and musical advancement from The Weeknd, 75 percent of post millennium hip-hop, bullshit pop stars, and EDM; it is good to know that real music, even if it is 37 years old, lives on. And everyone was here to experience it, from the Asian-American dudes who were dancing, to the white lady with a Stevie Wonder tattoo on the upper part of her arm, to the Black married couples who brought their kids to expose them to “warmth.” Even if we have to be reminded about love and life once or twice a year, it is good to know that there is still some humanity left in popular culture and more importantly, on earth. Thank you, Mr. Wonder for that much needed reminder.