Attention blogdonia: where's the love for Stevie Wonder? He's one of a handful of legitimate contenders for "greatest living musical genius." Vocally and instrumentally, he remains at the very top of his game -- I am dead serious, his voice seems supernaturally ageless, and we are talking about one of the most astoundingly flexible, powerful, evocative voices in the entire history of music. As a pianist and keyboardist, the depth of his groove is unassailable -- anyone who's ever touched a clavinet or an analog synth of any kind is wholly in Stevie's debt. (And we haven't even mentioned his first instrument... )
His band, who kicked off the first hit of their summer tour on Wednesday at the Jones Beach Theater on Long Island, is led by the great Nathan Watts on bass -- Watts has been playing with Stevie for 34 years. He knows how this music is supposed to go. He evidently did an incredible job conveying that knowledge to the band, during 8-10 hour rehearsals every day for the eleven days leading up to the gig, because I'm pretty sure this is the hardest-grooving band I have ever heard in my life. I know the only thing anyone wants to talk about is the Vampire Weekend show in Central Park last weekend, but seriously. Stevie fucking Wonder, y'all. It's not like he plays all the time, either -- last year's tour was his first in a decade. I can't be the only music blogger who thought it was worth taking the LIRR+shuttle bus combo out to Jones Beach.
The full-capacity crowd was as diverse an audience as I've ever seen, twentysomething hipsters cheek-by-jowl with septuagenarian black ladies who've been fans since "Fingertips" first dropped. Everyone in the audience was amazingly good-natured, even after the skies opened up and we all ran for the concourse stairwells, huddling under cover from the torrential downpour and lightning storm that threatened to scuttle the show. But the storm eventually passed and once the stage had been thoroughly wet-vac'd, Stevie took the stage in front of a damp but fervent crowd.
The pair of women next to me sang along (well) to practically every word all night, but their breakaway favorites were two of the extra tracks from Original Musiquarium -- "Ribbon in the Sky" and "Do I Do." (I had no idea those songs had such a dedicated following.)
I didn't take notes on the setlist but the early hits were "My Cherie Amour" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," the ballads included "Lately," "Golden Lady," "Overjoyed," "Laugh You Right Out of My Life" (a feature for his daughter, Aisha), and -- unfortunately but probably inevitably -- "I Just Called To Say I Love You," which a radio contest-winner sang alongside Stevie. (Against all odds, she was not awful.) The new material sounded really strong, which makes me cautiously optimistic about the forthcoming album. But the best performances -- the "oh my god kill me now these are the greatest sounds I've ever heard in my life" performances -- were on "Master Blaster," "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing," "Livin' For The City," "Higher Ground," "Sir Duke," "I Wish," and the closing jam on "Superstition," especially when Stevie led the ecstatic croud in a chant of "It's time... for America... to be better than it's ever been." (No mystery what he meant.)
Most surprising additions to the setlist: "Spain" (including the introductory gloss on 'Concierto de Aranjuez,' a last-minute addition which keyboardist Victoria Theodore blogs about here -- so great to have the inside story from a member of Stevie's touring band!) and... "Giant Steps"? Yes, Stevie played (and soloed on) "Giant Steps." I did not expect that.
Stevie must have also had something planned with Q-Tip, because at one point he called him up to the stage. But -- dammit -- something must have gone awry, because Tip never materialized. Nice tease there.
I don't know if the set was cut short due to the storm delay, but Stevie played for about two hours and I would have blissfully listened to at least two more. The problem with having such an incredible body of work is that any given concert is only going to scratch the surface, but the only real disappointment was the choice of ballads -- I would have ditched "Ribbon in the Sky," "Lately," and "I Just Called…" in favor of "Knocks Me Off My Feet," "All In Love Is Fair" and "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)", and I truly desperately wanted to hear "As," "Big Brother," or "You Haven't Done Nothin'." Maybe next time. Keep touring, Stevie, we need you.
Also, how is it that I did not know about this?