Stevie Wonder and Orchestra, Songs in the Key of Life Live, BST Festival, July 10th, 2016
Maybe it was just me, but...
When the show was announced in March, the year had not yet become this rough, Yeats-like beast, with a gaze that seemed "as blank and pitiless as the sun." As the concert neared, it had. Stevie's stature - soul pop's great seer - pulled focus. His intended performance of his acclaimed, 1976 blend of composition and social consciousness alluded to the way that Khalil Gibran began The Prophet. As the ship that would bear Almustafa hence - forever - finally pulled into harbour, the people who had enjoyed their proximity to his wisdom appeared in their multitudes and processed towards him; needing to listen one more time, not knowing when they would have another opportunity. If ever an elder was needed to speak with and counsel the concerned on how to proceed, now was the time. Stevie was the man for the job.
Performing Songs in the Key of Life live was a summons to people who loved a project that had famously tackled poverty, politics, racism, birth, African American heritage, metaphysics and spiritual health. Stevie was chief in the 1970s culture of pop statesmen; a time when the largest audience for an African American's message or vision came through music. The concert did not need to be a parade of his eyepopping catalogue, but a concert for the time; a fact that was not lost on Mr Wonder. And, he brought along a chamber orchestra, complete with a beautiful conductor, Crystal Alforque, a gospel chorale, and the Big Bad Bass Daddy, Nathan Watts, to propound his point.
Stevie knows. You just know that he knows. When he came on stage to the expectant ovation of sixty five thousand people, the seismic tremors of 2016 were very much on his mind. Sound levels were fluctuctuant, so his opening remarks were not always that clear, but he did say the following, "In this troubled time, I want to say, with all of you, I love you all. I love you because I was blessed to be blind. It was a gift... My life is to please God, and to use the gift of song to encourage me to give you music that will help you to move forward." Amen. He described his awareness and sadness at the enduring relevance of Songs in the Key of Life - forty years later. He settled the "Lives Matter" argument: all lives matter, but we all have black/soul in us, "So stop denying your culture!" That is all. Then, with an "Are you ready?" he played the opening bars of Love's in Need of Love Today. The audience lifted its arms.
It is said that it takes three selections before a concert truly settles. Love's in need of Love Today, Have A Talk With God and Village Ghetto Land were thrown beneath that particular bus because the concert was sequenced, for the most part, in the original order. Contusion exemplified the truth of the "It takes three" adage: the concert kicked in. Sir Duke turned the multitude into a leaping crowd of Tiggers. I Wish continued the jubilation with the crowd shouting, "You nasty boy!" When the introduction for Knocks Me Off My Feet played, somebody bellowed, "YES!" and then apologised in a classically British fashion because nobody else in his immediate surround greeted the song with the same level of animation. Much of the delivery was verbatim, lick for lick. It was very welcome. But every now and then, Stevie would just fly in an outer planetary yelp from the ether, to remind us that this was indeed live, and this was indeed Stevie in barely aged voice. The song was one of the first to segue into a call and response jam: ladies trading "I don't wanna bore you with it," with the chaps' "Oh But I love you. I love you. I love you."
After - with Van Dyck Cockney - teasing the way the British speak, and somehow evoking Ray Winstone, he paused to voice his alarm at the declining importance of music in schools. Pastime Paradise was greeted with a mighty roar. It built to an almighty swell. But alas, it ended without the big gong. For Summer Soft, Stevie was unable to reprise the delectable sotto voce of his recorded verses, but the raging refrain, "And she's gone," was like thunder, with a little raucous help from the multitude. Ordinary Pain sounded like an old friend, and those who longed to hear the grinding, wailing funk outro were not disappointed. The bonus 45 - included with the original 1976 issue of the record - made its first appearance with Saturn and Ebony Eyes. They were generous inclusions, but the reason they appeared on the bonus 45 was apparent in the rise of chatter, and a noticeable movement to the bars and facilities. Stevie announced a fifteen minute intermission.
The second half begins with Isn't She Lovely. Elation! As the sky darkens, the static field dissolves into a shiny happy dancefloor. The first tears of the night come when Stevie blows a long exquisite harmonica solo, lifting the spirits and prodding the tear ducts. It is unleaded bliss. Joy Inside My Tears follows. It reads like an edification, a signal; what to do in times of uncertainty: "You have done what no one thought could be: you put some joy inside my tears." Stevie's final virtuosic vocal lick recalls They Won't Go When I Go. The field rings. Black Man carries a still vital message. The field lurches into swaying funk rock out. Stevie takes a long vocal rest, "It's time to meet the singers."
They are all thoroughly expert; only a verse and chorus each. By the second hymn, the atmosphere has lost its electricity: the punters are politely thinking, "We haven't really come to hear this." Tepid applause. All Day Sucker follows, another moment for the bonus 45. It feels like a longueur, unfortunately compounded by Easy Going Evening (My Mama's Call). A lady shouts, "This is for the fans. There are people who have come to hear Ma Cherie Amour, going WTF?" I find myself thinking that the wunderkind didn't really need to do the bonus 45 cuts. I get over that complaint with Ngiculela - Es Una Historia - I Am Singing. The field is become more spacious. People enjoy the increased rhumba capacity. Stevie leads the orchestra into another generous jam. It segues into a version of The Box Tops' The Letter, reminiscent of Willy Mitchell's southern fried production for Al Green circa 1971. And then he plays Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready.
If It's Magic is contemplative, introspective. The field seems silent, still. Tears again. The introduction to As happens. Smiling eyes. Warm smiles. I begin to appreciate the degree to which punters in the audience half my age know this work as much as I once did. And then, celebration: Another Star. It's a Wonder rocket! The audience takes off. When it is airborne, the prophet announces that it is time to put Stevie Wonder away, "Don't be booing me!" He declares that he will now become DJ Tick Tick Boom. Where have I heard that before? Oh Yeah: Prince, 1990, Graffiti Bridge - Tick Tick Bang. Stevie stands there with a big grin on his face, and plays sections of Kiss and When Doves Cry. I love it. We think, we hope, he is going to play Bowie too. He doesn't.
His departure is close. Again with the mockney, "Stoyvoy! Stoyvoy!" he teases. The crowd duly respond with "Stoyvoy! Stoyvoy!" A few enjoyable bars of Part Time Lover and Signed Sealed Delivered. But then, over one of the fattest grooves of all time, he closes the proceedings with a good old chunky version of Superstition. It is with this selection that he delivers his final homily. "Love one another. Work it out. We have a future too." And with that the prophet is led from the stage. Some sixty thousand people walk out into the breezy night, trading the choruses of I Just Called to Say I Love You and Happy Birthday. They came to hear a message. It was clear. Don't let all the hate distract you from all the love. The prophet has spoken.