“And now help me welcome a true living legend,” said comedian DL Hughley, introducing Stevie Wonder for what would be the first of the Motown hero’s many appearances at his fifth-annual “House of Toys” benefit in Los Angeles. “Legend,” “genius” — these are words that are used so freely in the music industry these days that no one would be surprised if by 2003, the Backstreet Boys are given a Lifetime Achievement honor at the American Music Awards, and feeling neglected, Britney Spears manages to finagle a Video Vanguard honor from MTV’s Video Music Awards.
But in the case of Stevie Wonder, a man who started making music at age eleven, and has crafted some of the most enduring music of the last quarter century, the word “legend” is not only apt, but maybe even an understatement. Although Wonder has been largely inactive in recent years, during his brief appearance on Saturday night (Dec. 16) he provided a reminder of his brilliance with a performance that was astonishing in its ability to energize 15,000 fans as quickly and loudly as any of today’s flavors of the moment. Unfortunately, it took many an hour and inconsistent performances to reach Wonder’s headlining set.
The marathon four-and-a-half hour show began with a hilarious twenty-minute monologue from Hughley touching on everything from the Florida recounts to his grandparents discovering Viagra. The one ironic thing was that at a benefit to bring in toys for underprivileged children at Christmas time, Hughley’s act was unquestionably R-rated.
Hughley then brought out Wonder, who cleansed the crowd with a series of thank-you’s for making the night possible before turning the Forum into a giant church as he led the venue in a sing-along of the gospel-flavored “Amen.”
There were repeated references throughout the night to spirituality and God. Case in point, Wonder’s “Amen” was followed by Kim Burrell and a gospel choir. God was thanked so many times throughout the show it was sometimes hard to tell if it was a concert or post-game interview following the Super Bowl. That Mya took the stage accompanied by multiple dancers performing a choreographed routine that could’ve been part of the Super Bowl halftime show only added to the confusion. However, R&B crooner Carl Thomas set things straight with two songs from his Emotional album, which as he pointed out, is now platinum. His deep, soulful vocals on the smash “I Wish” got the crowd going, providing an early highlight, as well as some momentum.
That was quickly sapped however by an ill-advised smooth jazz portion of the gig, including one track each by guitarist Norman Brown and horn-man Boney James, who looked and sounded enough like Kenny G to give some in the audience nightmares.
Veteran guitarist George Duke, however, resurrected the crowd with a booming funk jam. The old hands continued to show their younger counterparts a thing or two as jazz vocalist Diane Schuur delivered a stirring a capella rendition of Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Wonder rewarded her performance by coming out to play piano for Schuur.
In another ill-fated portion of the concert, Chilean rock band La Ley played a three-song set that had some fans very vocally supporting them but most in the crowd heading to the exits in exodus for the intermission the promoters should’ve factored in time for, but didn’t.
Kirk Franklin reignited the audience with an energetic set that even saw him mingling with the first few rows. While Franklin used showmanship to earn the adoration of the Forum attendees, singer Jill Scott relied on nothing but her booming vocal cords to garner a deserved standing ovation. Scott has followed in the recent footsteps of Erykah Badu and Macy Gray (who made a surprise appearance during Wonder’s set) to become this year’s breakout R&B vocalist. She resolutely demonstrated why during her lush, mid-tempo soul ballads.
Next up was Sisqo, introduced by former LA Laker great Magic Johnson, who got maybe the biggest ovation of the night, until Sisqo came back out with Wonder, and at the latter’s personal request, played “The Thong Song.” Sisqo has said he wouldn’t play his biggest hit again, but how could he say no to Stevie Wonder? He couldn’t, which is why before playing the song, he said, “I’m only doing this because Stevie asked me to.”
Without missing a beat, Wonder leapt into his own seven-song set, sending the crowd into near hysteria as he started to draw on his prolific Seventies catalog. Digging out chestnuts like “Superstition” and “Do I Do,” Wonder was dazzling, pounding away at his keyboards with a passion that gave the tunes the vitality of songs written yesterday.
He mixed the tempo well, also including the lovely ballad “Send One Your Love,” as well as a superb duet with Scott on “Overjoyed.” Proving to be a very gracious host, Wonder gave some of his allotted time to not only Scott, but Gray and the Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson.
The show finally ended sometime around midnight, with Wonder having to be practically dragged off stage by an assistant who kept whispering into the performer’s ear while he played. Presumably he was warning that they were running over, because after every time the assistant ran on stage Wonder said, “We have to go.”
For those who had waited all night to see him give one of his rare live performances, those words were as disappointing as some of the evening’s earliest moments. But in keeping with one of the themes of the evening, to be thankful for what you have, fans should feel fortunate they got to see even seven or eight songs by Wonder. That he was still at the top of his game was an added bonus no one could’ve hoped for. Now if he’d only tour next year, Christmas could come early and often.