For a music icon, Stevie Wonder has kept a relatively low profile in recent years. His touring schedule has been sporadic at best, and in the age of licensing music, Wonder isn't as prominently featured as some of his contemporaries. But the one thing you can count on from the Motown legend is for him to play a benefit around holiday time.
On the night of his 18th annual House Full of Toys Benefit, the singer decided to switch things up. We aren't talking about the vastly different arrangements of his greatest hits that are completely unrecognizable to casual fans.
After getting sick a few days before last year's benefit, Wonder knew had to make up for what in his opinion was a subpar performance. In order to make up for it, he gave fans a treat: Wonder played his seminal Songs in the Key of Life from start to finish.
“I wanted to do this for years,” he said. “I thank God for this night and this opportunity.”
The ambitious undertaking, the first time the keyboardist has undertaken this type of performance, featured many of music's heavy hitters from across generations and genres. Musicians ranging from John Popper to John Mayer, Eric Benet to Herbie Hancock, and Esperanza Spalding to India.Arie along with some of the record's original players lending a helping hand, the 63-year-old tore through a three-hour set that fans movin' and groovin' to the iconic album. In addition to the world class stars, there was also a trio of beautiful backing vocalists along with a full orchestra and choir that Wonder would summoned when a song necessitated them.
Between the expansive sound and spacey jams, there were plenty of moments that had the crowd rise from their comfortable seats. Not surprisingly, the building was shaking to the jazzy “Sir Duke” and the uptempo “I Wish,” two of the most popular songs from the record. But there other highlights as well, like India. Arie's soaring vocals on “Saturn,” the retro-western jangly sound of “Ebony Eyes” and the emotional, spacey “As,” a song Wonder told the crowd was his mother's favorite.
In a hit-laden career, Songs in the Key of Life is debatably Wonder's finest hour. Released in 1976, the album sounds as contemporary and innovative as anything released today. The message of the maestro's lyrics is just as powerful and poignant as they were nearly 40 years ago.
By playing this album in its entirety, Wonder could have drastically changed the arrangements to suit whatever he thought would be the best way for the concept to work. However, he stuck to the original compositions, with few to any changes that were recognizable to the crowd.
Though he warned the crowd there could be a few issues since this was the first time he'd done something like this, there were only a couple of times where Wonder got slightly derailed. Although he had to restart “Ordinary Plan” and “This is Magic,” no one was too disappointed, except maybe the singer, a noted perfectionist. The beautiful, rich melodies, along with the expansive sound that was captured on tape so many years ago sounded just as crisp and lively in the cavernous Nokia Theatre. Then again, should anyone really be too surprised?
By the end of the album closer “Another Star,” with all of the moving parts who participated, including the singer's family, squeezed onto the stage, it was hard to believe that three hours, including a brief intermission, had passed. Of all people, Popper best summed up the views of both the participating musicians and fans who were there to benefit House Full of Toys.
“Who DOESN'T love him?” the bluesman asked and exclaimed at the same time. The reaction wasn't as loud as you'd expect from a comment like that, for those that did hear Popper's words, the only think they could do was nod along in approval.
The Crowd: So, apparently, as I found out on Instagram after I posted photos and videos during "Sir Duke” and "I Wish,” the trio of Sia, Selena Gomez and Katy Perry danced in front of me. I was lambasted for not citing them in the caption by their fans. Kids these days.
Critical Bias: Growing up on the east coast, the Knicks would always play the intro to "Sir Duke” to get them going after the opposition went on a run. Hearing that live for the first time was a treat, though it wasn't the same without Ewing, Oakley and Starks there.
Set list below:
Love's In Need Of Love Today
Have A Talk With God
Village Ghetto Land
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Isn't She Lovely
Joy Inside My Tears
All Day Sucker
Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing
If It's Magic