If there was an unseen presence at Stevie Wonder’s free outdoor show at the Montreal International Jazz Festival last night, it was that of a fellow Motown child star. Wonder was brought in to launch the festival’s 30th anniversary with a bang. But before singing a note, he walked out on the General Motors stage, accompanied by his daughter, Aisha Morris, and somberly addressed the audience.
“I want for us to celebrate the life and the legacy of Michael Jackson,” he said, before criticizing gossip mongers and vultures who have exploited the late singer and focused on his darker moments. “We can continue to keep the life and spirit of this man’s music alive forever,” Wonder said before opening a generous two-and-a-half hour show with “I Can’t Help It,” the song he co-wrote on the Jackson classic Off the Wall.
At times, the posthumous props bordered on the bizarre. Wonder stopped the show three times to play Jackson recordings while he and his 14-member band simply grooved along. At one point, he directed everyone to sing “Michael, we love you so, never, ever, ever gonna let you go.”
It was a night filled with other surprises as well. During a warm, low-key version of the Beatles’ “Michelle”— a tip of the hat to the city’s French majority, perhaps — Wonder was joined by the collected voices of a crowd that stretched out as far as it was possible to see (the jazz festival’s Big Event concerts typically draw between 100,000 and 150,000 people). A spirited version of Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” with Wonder playing the melody on harmonica, was also a blindside pleasure.
Predictably, the oldies, loaded heavily into the final section of the show, drew the strongest reaction. “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “Superstition,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” “My Cherie Amour” and “Sir Duke,” among others, had the rain-soaked fans up and dancing. When it was all over, there was only one way to follow it. In an inspired bit of timing by festival organizers, fireworks lit up the sky.