Stevie Wonder was feeling michievious during his headlining set at Saturday’s Global Citizen Festival in New York’s Central Park. After future-soul singer Janelle Monáe belted one of the verses from “Higher Ground,” he made a panicked face behind his signature shades and cried, “Hold on! What’s the next song? I don’t even know!” – right before the horns kicked into “Sir Duke,” and Wonder and his sprawling band followed, without missing a beat. The surprises kept on coming, as Wonder dropped a slinky, funkified version of the Beatles‘ “Daytripper,” which left the audience singing along to the last few words by themselves. (“That’s it!” he said. “You want some more?”) The 60,000-strong crowd – their numbers swelled by an estimated additional 15 million live-streaming the concert online – played along willingly, as Wonder teased them with one of the descending sitar chords that open “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” and the audience roared their approval, swaying hands in the air.
Wonder, a longtime activist and a United Nations Messenger for Peace – or “Ambassador for Peace of These United Nations to Get Its Groove On,” as Bono said in his introduction to the legendary singer – is an ideal candidate for the Global Poverty Project’s second annual Global Citizen Festival, an event dedicated to raising awareness about worldwide issues like extreme poverty, education inequality, and environmental sustainability. Last year’s inaugural festival raised over a billion dollars to fight poverty. Wonder was joined by a like-minded, all-star lineup including Kings of Leon, Alicia Keys, and John Mayer, with brief sets by Monae, Elvis Costello and R&B crooner Maxwell, who announced mid-guest-vocals on “Superstition,” “I can’t believe this is happening!” Celebrities including Olivia Wilde, Gerard Butler, and Katie Holmes also briefly appeared onstage to introduce the artists and speakers.
“I’m blind up here, but you guys look like a nice crowd from what I can see,” said Kings of Leon singer Caleb Followill, squinting in the bright sunlight of the 70-degree day. Followill apologized for the “sloppiness” of “Beautiful War,” a slow-burner off the Nashville outfit’s forthcoming album, Mechanical Bull, that they hadn’t played live before. But they nailed the jangly melodies of set opener “Supersoaker,” also from Bull, along with older fan favorites “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody,” they nailed it. Next up was Elvis Costello, who had a slightly different take on the view from the stage. “You all look so beautiful, I’m going to play you half an old song and half a new one,” he said, leading into a solo electric guitar-driven version of “Tripwire” off Wise Up Ghost, his recently released collaborative album with the Roots, before revisiting his ’70s classic “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.”
Following a series of presentations between sets on the importance of gender equality, Alicia Keys sang “Girl on Fire” with a posse of male dancers behind her and the flame-colored setting sun reflected in her baby grand. Jay Z did not, as some had hoped, show up for “Empire State of Mind Pt. II,” but Keys made up for it with a sultry rendition of her breakthrough single “Fallin’,” which celebrated its 10th anniversary two years ago and still sounds as timeless as ever.
John Mayer, who seemed more comfortable with a guitar between him and his audience – “I fear to ask,” he said in a stilted clip, “are you having a good time?” – also dusted off some older material in the form of “Waiting on the World to Change” from 2006’s Continuum. Mayer has previously acknowledged the song’s debt to Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, so this time he covered Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” in the middle of the song. But it was another cover, a rangy yet muscular interpretation of the Grateful Dead’s “Going Down the Road, Feeling Bad,” that was the highlight of his set.
Wonder may have been feeling more loose with the audience than Mayer, but following a spirited finale to Innervisions‘ “Living in the City,” things got serious. “Someone who is very dear to us and a part of this family would be here today were it not for a gun,” he said. “We must do something about the gun control laws in this country.” A couple “John Lennon” murmurs circulated, but it wasn’t until after Wonder played the first notes of “Imagine” that he said Lennon’s name out loud. (Later in the song, he also found a way to slip in some more Marvin Gaye, this time a line from “What’s Goin’ On.”) Whether because of the song’s message, the proximity of Strawberry Fields, or the simple emotional tenor of Wonder’s voice, it was an undoubtedly emotional moment. But the singer would let no one, least of all himself, derail the festival’s positive vibes. There’s nothing like the slinky funk of “Superstition” as a distraction, especially when he encouraged the audience to sing along to new lyrics: “We are global citizens/ We’re going to change the world!”