Stevie Wonder kicked off a 12-date tour celebrating his 1976 landmark Songs in the Key of Life, revisiting the album with a small army of musicians at a sold-out Madison Square Garden last night. Songs in the Key of Life was the most ambitious R&B album of its time — equal parts White Album and Black Moses, 104 minutes splayed across four sides of vinyl and a bonus 7-inch, a dissertation on life itself — and, accordingly, Wonder did not travel lightly to New York City. At the end of nearly three hours (including intermission) of interlocking, bombastic, heavily layered sound, Wonder shouted out 21 musicians, and that didn’t include India.Arie, harmonica blazer Frédéric Yonnet and the string section in the shadows of stage right.
The whole night seemed like it was teetering on the edge of a Broadway-sized rock-pomp precipice and — thrillingly, electrically, intimately — it never went over. “Have a Talk With God” had four different percussionists playing shakers but remained heavy-footed funk; the Chick Corea-influenced “Contusion” had dual guitars progging mightily but the precise splatter of timbales and congas shined through. OK, fine, “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” were blown-out pop explosions — but would you want it any other way?
In fact, it was Wonder’s warmth and humanity that kept this gaggle of monstrously talented musicians tethered to earth. He stood up to sing “Village Ghetto Land” with a string section replaying his stately Yamaha GX-1 chamber melody. “I forgot my words,” he fumbled with a mid-song laugh, “I’m so excited to be here.” In turn, what could have been the evening’s sole maudlin moment was turned into one of the more intimate things you could witness in a stadium with a capacity of 20,000. Despite the organization and rehearsal time this endeavor must have warranted, it still felt dangerous and unscripted. After calling Life keyboardist Greg Phillinganes over for a solo in “Knocks Me off My Feet,” you could see Wonder whispering in his ear, presumably to tell him that the other keyboardist, Eddie Brown, was up next. Wonder stuck to the album’s track order, but that was about it.
Thanks to the freedom Wonder afforded the band, 38 years of American popular music was put in conversation with itself. Within the hard rock chug and girl-group, middle-finger harmonies of “Ordinary Pain,” you could hear En Vogue being invented or answered. The electro-rock of “All Day Sucker” felt like it could have explored the galaxy with Eighties robo-funkers like Breakwater and Midnight Star. The swerving vocals on “Joy Inside My Tears” were stunning, like the singer was constructing the bridge that brought us from Ray Charles to Michael Jackson.
And sure, Stevie sang about the “Joy Inside My Tears,” but, 38 years later, he was really plumbing tears inside his joy. In “Summer Soft,” he seemed like he was at the verge of crying, and “Joy” itself served as the evening’s second emotional climax, with Wonder standing up and pounding on the lid of piano to where the whams were getting picked up in the mic. He dedicated “Black Man” to a family in the audience who lost a child in the Sandy Hook Massacre. He performed “If It’s Magic” solo, singing alongside the original Dorothy Ashby recording and reminding the audience of the late harpist’s greatness. The subject of “Isn’t She Lovely,” his first child, Aisha Morris, sings background vocals in Wonder’s band, and she performed the tune while holding her toddler half-sister.
After the last notes of album closer “Another Star,” Wonder enthused “Yes, we did it!” in an exclamation that seemed equal parts celebration and relief. He walked off during a horn-drenched, eight-minute version of “Superstition” that devolved into the same whimsical spirit of the evening, the background singers dancing around and Whoopi Goldberg appearing on stage, a closer that was equal parts free-spirited, triumphant and huge. Fitting an album that attempted to capture the nuance of existence, the show is possibly 2014’s greatest testament to the limitless potential of American music itself.