Songs in the Key of Life – Stevie Wonder, 1976 album/ 2014 performance
Last night Stevie Wonder brought his Songs in the Key of Life tour to Toronto, and it was the first time I was truly grateful to have moved to this city. It’s not every day you get to hear an iconic album played live by the legend who created it in the first place. Normally I don’t really do concert reviews here. What was different about this show was that the album, 38 years after its original release was played completely and in its original order, only detouring to include the 4 songs from the 7” EP, A Something Extra. I can’t express how unique of an experience this was – once in a lifetime, really. It’s been a while since I’ve written about an album on this blog, but last night has given me a much needed excuse to not only write about one of my all-time favourite albums but also reflect on the 3.5 hour long performance of the album last night.
Songs in the Key of Life is an especially important album for me. It is one of the very first vinyl records I ever owned, before I even had a turntable to play it on. I studied the liner notes and cover as much as any of my favourite childhood books, not really comprehending the breadth of life that is actually covered on this two-disc creation. It is overwhelming to consider how much Stevie pulls together in one album. If Songs in the Key of Life were a movie, it would be a long and epic tale covering joy and grief, pain and desire, prayer and protest, and most of all, love. Think Forrest Gump with a Malcolm X spin.
The first words sung at the show were the first words sung on the album, from “Love’s In Need of Love Today”: “Good morn or evening friends”. Stevie introduced himself and his album to the audience, acting first as MC before becoming storyteller, pianist, conductor, singer, and harmonica player. In concert, I was immediately struck by the fact that this 64-year-old still has some serious pipes. For “Have a Talk With God”, Stevie brought out his personal assistant/duet partner India Arie. No big deal.
“Village Ghetto Land” always strikes me as such a visual song to have been written by a blind man, as it paints such a vivid picture of a neighbourhood neglected and forgotten, while the powerful and corrupt celebrate. The string section from Toronto’s Symphony Orchestra was a highlight at this point last night.
I have often thought of the instrumental “Contusion” as a synth-fabulous intermission of sorts that propels the album from introspective to funky. But hearing this track live transformed it from a mere intermission to a highlight of the show for me. All 4 drumsets and 3 keyboards were let loose and made some of the cleanest loud music I’ve ever heard. So many props to the sound team.
Until this moment, the show was a sit-down kind of event. But thankfully, everyone that I could see got out of their seats to dance and sing along to the incredibly funky, fun, big-band tribute to “Sir Duke” Ellington. And they stayed up, because at this point it was time to “flip over the record” to hear one of the funkiest, grooviest bass lines I have ever heard on “I Wish”. Speaking of the bass lines on this record, one of my favourite things about last night was that the original bassist from the album, Nathan Watts, was also playing on this tour.
“Knocks Me Off My Feet” is such a lyrically simple and melodically perfect love song, and I was just as mesmerized hearing it live as I was the first time I heard it on vinyl. After singing the words “I Love You” close to 50 times, Stevie challenged one of his back-up singers, Keith John, to a vocal battle before introducing him as the son of Little Willie John (singer of the original recording of “Fever”). Keith then did a verse and chorus of “Fever” before they launched into a straight-up jam, including some improv from one of the violinists from the TSO. The string section continued to shine through “Pastime Paradise”, while someone in our row actually proclaimed aloud that he thought this groove was original to Coolio. The downside of live shows…
“Summer Soft” is another major highlight from Songs, and did not disappoint live. Keith John continued to be showcased as they performed this as a duet – Stevie singing about Summer/Fall and Keith singing about Winter/Spring.
“Ordinary Pain” wraps up the first disc on the album, which is when Stevie took a break to sing songs from the bonus EP, performing “Saturn” with India Arie in a massive multicoloured gown, and “Ebony Eyes”. The press I have of the album has been missing the 7” as long as I’ve known, so these aren’t songs I feel nearly as nostalgic about. If he had skipped them altogether, I can’t say I’d have been disapointed.
This is the time in the show where we were given a 20-minute intermission – right when I would have had to switch to the second vinyl at home. Beginning the second half of the show just like the album would, with “Isn’t She Lovely,” Stevie introduced us to the subject of the song, his daughter Aisha Morris, who is singing back-up on this tour. She is also a total vocal boss, by the way. Continuing on through Songs, “Joy Inside My Tears” was especially touching – I hadn’t really felt emotional until this point. It’s not my favourite song on the album by any stretch, but for some reason it felt like one of the most honest sentiments of the evening.
Hearing that Wonder has been dedicating “Black Man” to different folks on this tour, I was a little sad he didn’t in Toronto. Beth and I had made the guess that he would make mention of Mike Brown since Ferguson was the big news of the week. I did appreciate that he added the lyrics “for all women” on this tour. Especially since only 2 of the 27 historical figures mentioned on the track are women. Normally I cut the song some slack because I know he’s using “man” in the “humankind” sense, and it was written in the mid-70’s, but I felt especially aware of its male-centricity last night.
At this point Wonder played the other two tracks from the EP, the super funky “All Day Sucker”, and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)”. They were fine, but I was pretty excited when he brought India Arie back out to sing with him on “Ngiculele – Es Un A Historia – I Am Singing”, and even more excited when he played this cool string instrument called the Harpejji, with which he transitioned seamlessly into a cover of MJ’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”. I thought I was going to die from happiness.
“If It’s Magic” was appropriately a magical point in the show, where Stevie sang alone on stage to the original recording of Dorothy Ashby playing harp. The minimalist effect didn’t last long however, as he brought out nearly all 20 members of his band back out for over-the-top love song “As”, and finishing huge with everyone (except for the orchestral strings) on “Another Star”. Thankfully, at this point, everyone was back on their feet singing along loudy to the “lalalalala’s” and dancing their hearts out.
The show would have ended well on this massive high, where the album ends. However, in the show Wonder’s version of an encore included a transformation of himself into “DJ Tik Tik Boom,” which meant he played short clips from several of his big hits from other albums. It was actually a great idea, just not executed super well, with a lot of awkward silence and chit-chatting. Although there was this great moment where Stevie Wonder quoted Jay Z: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” Other than that, it was just a lot of anticipatory waiting. I can’t really complain though, because the show closer, “Superstition” was very much worth the wait. India Arie came back out and danced around with the other backup vocalists. It was a huge party. I just wish it felt more like the culmination and climax of a great party as opposed to an afterparty.
There were several other moments worth a mention. Stevie Wonder graciously threw attention and gratitude to all of his collaborators at any chance he got. At one point he created a trio with a diatonic harmonica player, an alto saxophonist, and himself on chromatic harp, which was both unique and phenomenal. Another time, he picked up his harp and started playing it backwards by accident, but without skipping a beat he flipped it around and kept playing. Really, everytime he picked up his harmonica was a highlight for me. The man is a musical genius, and I’m just so grateful I could be in the same place and time as so many talented musicians, including the legend himself, Stevie Wonder.