“Truly, I wanted to do this for years,” Stevie Wonder told the capacity crowd at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles at his annual House Full of Toys benefit concert last night, “but it felt like it was meant to be right now.” “This” was a performance of his classic 1976 double album Songs in the Key of Life: all 21 songs, including the bonus seven-inch single. Lasting three hours (including an intermission), it was an exhausting but exhilarating evening, treating an American masterwork with the respect and love that it deserves.
Recreating the album required multiple percussionists, keyboard players, a string section, backup singers, and a choir, all shuttling onstage and off as needed. There were often twenty or more musicians playing; the overall effect was that Wonder was leading an R&B orchestra from his keyboard, in the tradition of Duke Ellington (whom he paid tribute to in “Sir Duke,” one of the evening’s many highlights). This small army was remarkably supple, and especially effective on the lush, layered “Pastime Paradise” and “Joy Inside My Tears.”
The arrangements were largely faithful to the original performances; in fact, many of the musicians played on the 1976 album. Consider, for example, keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, just 20 years old when Songs in the Key of Life was released, who went on to be musical director for Michael Jackson, and was revisiting the album at age 57. There was also a bevy of guest stars, including Esperanza Spalding (rocking an upright bass), India.Arie (exceptional on “Saturn”), John Mayer (adding guitar without showboating on “All Day Sucker”), Chick Corea (playing keyboards on “Contusion”), Joe (the R&B singer with the world’s least Googleable name, making numerous appearances starting with “Love’s in Need of Love Today”), and Herbie Hancock (recreating his appearance on “As”). (Listed in the program as a special guest vocalist on “If It’s Magic” but not appearing: Johnny Mathis.) Frederic Yonnet and John Popper played harmonica together on “Have a Talk with God,” undaunted by Wonder’s status as the twentieth century’s greatest harmonica player. When they returned for “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call),” Wonder joined them in an unusual but effective harmonica trio. And although there were many excellent guest singers, two of the best were Shirley Brewer and Ledisi, trading vocals in the funky coda to “Ordinary Pain.” Just looking tired were the three young kids playing tambourine during “Another Star” – they can be excused, since at that point it was past 11:30 p.m., presumably way past their bedtimes.
The majority of these songs rarely (or never) make it into Wonder’s hit-filled live show, but they’re all extraordinary compositions. He seemed thrilled by the opportunity to return to his 37-year-old album, showing off his gift with funk, balladry, jazz, social commentary, love songs, and anything else he attempted. Close listening revealed new layers to the songs, and unanswered questions about some of them: Does “Ngiculela Es Una Historia – I Am Singing” have the most primal open-throated melody Wonder ever came up with? What does it mean when he writes a visual description of a lover, as he did in “Ebony Eyes”? Is “All Day Sucker” the dirtiest song he ever recorded?
Wonder performed the album in sequence, shoehorning in the bonus tracks “Saturn” and “Ebony Eyes” after the original side two, “All Day Sucker” and “Easy Goin’ Evening” after the original side three, and the unreleased “Living for Your Love,” an excellent funk song, before the grand finale of “Another Star.” The second half emphasized longer grooves: “Isn’t She Lovely” lasted nine minutes, about half of which was Wonder taking an extended harmonica solo. Wonder was in a good mood, paying tribute between songs to Nelson Mandela and the importance of arts education in public schools, but he kept the focus on the album – when he bruited the idea of performing “Jingle Bells” mid-set, he quickly abandoned it. (A film crew captured the whole event; if the video is ever released, it’ll edit out a few technical mishaps and false starts.)
“I wish those days could come back once more,” Wonder sang in “I Wish,” as the audience rose to their feet and danced. For one night, at least, his wish was granted, as he brought an audience of thousands back to his miraculous 1976.