There are few things more predictably awesome than a Stevie Wonder concert. Now edging into 2015, it's still an experience that defies hyperbole. Even more so when you consider that performing his entire immortal double album, Songs in the Key of Life, isn't something Wonder would've done for fans when it was first released in 1976. Aside from doing barely any touring on the album when it came out, in 1975 Wonder had seriously contemplated leaving the music industry altogether. He was actually considering emigrating to Ghana to do some humanitarian work with handicapped children. Luckily, Wonder decided to stick around.
That small footnote was just one of the many things to be thankful for as the man of the hour(s) took the stage backed by as many as 30 of the world's best musicians for his 19th annual House Full of Toys benefit concert at the Forum on Saturday. The show resumed its yearly mission of harvesting toys for needy children over the holidays. And for the second time, the legend performed the album in its entirety for an adoring LA audience.
The Saturday night show started out more like a Sunday morning church service with a warm up set from the KJLH Gospel Choir. But with all the soulful music that awaited us, there really wasn't a need for such a hefty, holy appetizer. Led by the arm of neo-soulstress India.Arie in his sparkly black suit jacket, Wonder began the main event by addressing the crowd and the significance of the album he was about to perform.
"It has been truly a journey in my life and I just thank God every day for giving me those 21 songs and all the experiences behind those songs. I truly do."
The last stop on his 12-date US tour carried a mixture of grandiosity and genuine intimacy audiences have come to expect from the blind, braided icon.
The groovy warmth of "Love Is In Need of Love Today" radiated as Wonder took the reins of the show, seated at his stack of keyboards. A long mane of fashioned braids swayed in the back of his shiny bald head. From the first note, the 64 year-old performer's voice proved to be in peak shape and sustained all throughout the three-hour show (which included a 15-minute intermission). Anyone surprised that Wonder still has pep in his step probably shouldn't be–the man became a father for the 9th time just a day before the show. Obviously he still has the energy to perform.
Though we've gotten used to the concert being at the Nokia Theater the past several years, the Forum's acoustics were up to par, minus a handfull of feedback issues at various points in the show.
There wasn't any overtly political commentary from Wonder on Saturday, which seemed a bit odd given the post-Ferguson scarring that's played itself out in protests all over Southland recently. Instead, he let the orchestral grace and lyrical weight of songs like "Village Ghetto Land" do the talking. But he did end the song by modifying the words: "Tell me would you be happy – still in 2014 – in village ghetto land?" Even today, his songs have the ability to stay as poignant as they were the day they were released.
And of course, anyone can still look out and see his multi-generational, multi-ethnic crowd and witness everyone losing their minds to the grooves of "Sir Duke" and "I Wish."
The power of the band–which included original Songs musicians bassist Nathan Watts, guitarist Ben Bridges and keyboardist/musical director Greg Phillinganes–surged through every song. Wonder granted his players the latitude to solo, jam and even get proggy on a number of songs, including some fiery string solos from his violinists and his horn section.
However, at times it felt like the solos were going on extra long to compensate for the show's scant number of guest performers, which mostly included Indie.Arie (and her several costume changes), harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet and vocalists Deniece Williams and Shirley Brewer. Concerts from House of Toys past have included notable cameos by everyone from Carlos Santana to Ledisi and John Mayer. At the risk of making the show even longer, adding a few more stars to Wonder's gaggle of musicians would've been a nice touch.
Many of the time-tested gems on Songs are typically a part of Wonder's act at his holiday concert every year. Once again we enjoyed watching him bring his gorgeous daughter/background singer Aisha Morris out front for the story of how she inspired him to write "Isn't She Lovely." And his tribute to late harpist Dorothy Ashby, whose original harp recording accompanied him on "If It's Magic" was as touching as ever.
The other thing these concerts do is remind us that Wonder can still virtually dominate every instrument he touches. This time, his prowess on the harmonica came second to his skills on his strange finger tapping piano/guitar hybrid called the harpejji. A new staple at his concerts these days, he used it to mess around with crowd-pleasing covers of "Tequila," "Little Drummer Boy," "Silent Night" and Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel." It was a nice, intimate segment before he brought out the cavalry of dancers and singers backstage to join on the final track, "Another Star."
Of course he couldn't leave without doing some of his mandatory hits from some of his other records. Even if he had to perform them as his not-so-alter-ego, DJ Tick Tick Boom. For the last hurrah, Wonder performed a midnight encore of songs that included "Do I Do," "Master Blaster," "Living For the City," "I Just Called to Say I Love You," and "Superstition." The heavy hitting finale was powered by the ethos of Wonder's phrase "If the money's right, we'll play all night!" That mission was firmly accomplished as the show wrapped up around 12:30 a.m.
Though the landscape of music has shifted endlessly over Wonder's career–now past the half-century mark–it's amazing how little things have really changed when you see how crowds still react to him on stage. It feels nice to wrap ourselves in a time where album releases were considered true cultural events and songs could show us how far humans have come as a species and force us to do better–pushing us into the future and onto the dance floor at the same time. And the dialogue going on within Songs in the Key of Lifewill always be unquestionably relevant. As one older gentleman in his 60s sitting next to us at the show so eloquently put it: Stevie's music still divides the world between cool people and assholes. We couldn't agree more.