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Diva Madness: The 80’s Era, Round 1

You still have a couple of days to submit your own final four predictions for the Diva Madness Tournament!  Just print the brackets below, fill out the winners, and post a photo of the filled in brackets to twitter @djwhysoserious #DivaBrackets.  Or you can also fill in this handy google doc.  Any brackets shared before March 1st that correctly predict the final four will be entered to win some TBD diva-related prize!

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Continuing the theme of a classic ballad, I should warn you that since we’re looking at the 80’s era, you are in for a healthy dose of synthesizer and sax solos.  Truth be told, quite a few of these divas continued to make names for themselves in the 90’s, but for the sake of this round we’ll attempt to remain in and experience the decade that brought them into the spotlight.

Madonna (1) vs. Grace Jones (16)

Although Madonna has the top spot in her era, some would argue whether she deserves the diva title.  Though she began her career relying heavily on her dance ability and stage presence, her role in Evita caused her to take her vocals seriously.  Now, three whole decades later, she has proven herself neither fraud nor fad, and is often crowned the Queen of Pop.  Keep in mind that the video below  is taken from her 1987 tour, but something tells me you’ll have no problem considering more of her career.  Grace Jones may not have the same level of recognition as her competition, but has been equally influential over more recent artists.  Her concerts and music videos read as performance art, and though they didn’t always translate to commercial popularity, there is no question that her voice is powerful, and her artistry was ahead of her time.

Paula Abdul (9) vs. Chaka Khan (8)

It is a little odd posting ballads from both of these women who are known for their pop and funk dance tracks.  I suppose you’ll have to vote for whoever you’d like to see compete with more upbeat music in the next round.  Many now know Paula Abdul by her judge responsibilities on American Idol, X Factor and SYTYCD, but her qualifications for those gigs are based on her incredible performing career. Though Chaka Khan’s musical career began as the front-woman for the funk band Rufus, she went solo in the 80’s, showing off her powerful and sultry voice and stretching the bounds of what could be popular in music.  Did you know that her 1984 hit, “I Feel For You,” is the first ever pop song to feature a rapper?  Groundbreaker.

Stevie Nicks (5) vs. Kylie Minogue (12)

Stevie Nicks is yet another example of someone who began their musical career in the 70’s singing in a group, but was included in the 80’s category based on her solo career.  Her success with Fleetwood Mac set the tone for her reception, having been heralded by Rolling Stone Magazine as the “Reigning Queen of Rock and Roll.”  Her deep contralto vocals and her fondness of white flowing fabric have caused some to wonder if she is a witch of some kind.  If she is, she certainly has a spell on me.  Australian diva Kylie Minogue disappeared for a long time after making it big with her 1987 hit, “The Locomotion.”  Actually, that’s not really true – for over a decade she was releasing singles in Australia and the UK that never seemed to make it to North America in significant ways.  But in 2001, when radios started “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” she suddenly flooded back into the American consciousness as a solid performer and diva.

Pat Benatar (13) vs. Gloria Estefan (4)

This may be the hardest decision for me in this bracket, because I love both of these women for such different reasons.  Pat Benatar still seems to me to be one of the most powerful woman in rock music history, for her sheer voice and persona.  Her songs continue to summon 80’s passion in a quintessential way, making her gritty yet classicly trained voice perfect for a retro film soundtrack.  Meanwhile, Gloria Estefan paved the way for Latin artists to cross over into American pop charts.  She became a staple at Superbowl and Olympic performances (before this year, she was the only woman to perform and multiple Superbowl halftime shows).  If Pat represents 80’s emotional rock, Gloria represents for me a joyful (and possibly naive) optimism.

Janet Jackson (3) vs. Sinead O’Connor (14)

I’m going to go ahead and be honest: I have no idea how to talk about the great Janet Jackson in a tiny paragraph such as this.  I will just point out that when it comes to dancing and singing at the same time, very few compare.  She is an absolute force to be reckoned with in this competition, and in pure reality.  Then again, so is Sinead.  Both of these 80’s superstars continue to make music today, and although they are not as popular, I get the feeling they are pleased with their art.  Sinead O’Connor is like Sia in the modern era bracket, more of an anti-diva, which makes her even cooler than your average diva.  She has risked and lost commercial success in order to stand up for her convictions, which in a backwards kind of way seems pretty freaking diva.  Not to mention that voice.

Annie Lennox (11) vs. Ann Wilson (6)

Annie Lennox made a name for herself as half of the synthpop duo Eurythmics, making her diva status known early on for having a rich, soulful alto voice, and pulling off amazing attitude with androgynous style.  Since moving on to a solo career, Annie has won the Brit award for Best female artist more than anyone else, and shows up in every list involving female vocalists I’ve ever seen.  Ann Wilson has also made a name for herself in a duo, as one half of the Wilson sisters in the huge 80’s band, Heart.  While Nancy played guitar and sang harmonies, it was Ann’s unique and dynamic lead vocals mixed with her phenomenal stage presence that thrust this Seattle band into massive commercial success.  And it doesn’t hurt that they continue to tour today with nearly as much energy as they had almost 40 years ago.

Cyndi Lauper (7) vs. Sade (10)

Cyndi Lauper started out as a mere pop star, but has grown to be so much more.  She is one Oscar away from having an EGOT, having received her Emmy from a guest appearance on the TV show, Mad About You, and a Tony for her score of the musical Kinky Boots.  She is known for her activism for the LGBT community, most recently with a focus on ending LGBT youth homelessness in the States.  When Sade first started releasing records, she’d print a clear pronunciation of her name on the cover, “Shar-day,” but that is hardly necessary now.  This London diva may only have a couple of Grammys, but along with her Brit award, she receives a ton of international acclaim, including a couple of Porin (Croatian music) awards.  Her breathy vocals are usually the sexiest thing on any playlist, and over the three decades of her career she’s been constantly touring, while regularly charting on UK and American billboards.

Debbie Gibson (15) vs. Whitney Houston (2)

It may have been a while since Debbie Gibson has had much of a spotlight, but in her day she dominated the charts and looked adorable doing it.  She paved the way for every young, cute pop star we’ve seen since, and you may think of that as a negative thing, but the truth is that Debbie could really sing – especially at age 16, when she got her first single, “Only In My Dreams,” a song she wrote herself.  Unfortunately however, she’s up against Whitney Houston, who in many ways embodies each and every possible definition of a diva.  The drama and addictions took her away from this world way too soon, and yet she still left us three solid decades of timeless music characterized by her powerful, clear, and effortless vocal quality.

Get yourselves prepared to vote on the 90’s bracket, although I can’t promise to have it up this weekend- check back early next week.  The Classic era is officially closed, but if you haven’t yet voted for the modern era divas, you still have a chance to make your opinions count.  May the best diva win!

Soundtrack Madness: Feat. Artists Round 2

Featured Artist round 2

It’s time to continue voting in round 2 of the Featured Artist bracket!  These are soundtracks that heavily feature songs performed by one particular artist or band.  It’s up to you to choose the four albums you’d like to see in the Sweet 16 next week.  Please remember that your votes are for the Soundtrack album, and not the movie.  Good luck, and vote responsibly!

Purple Rain Help!I doubt this match-up is any surprise to anyone following the brackets.  As popular as the soundtrack for Rushmore may be, it was no match against The Beatles’ Help!  And Very few albums in this bracket could offer top-seeded Purple Rain much competition… until now, I’m sure.  These are both solid records from massive stars, and each is full of hits that have shaped generations.

MagnoliaBlue HawaiiWhen Magnolia beat out Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly in the first round by a single vote, we had our first great upset and surprise.  Blue Hawaii was also an underdog that beat The Beatles to be here.  Knowing that both albums clearly want this so bad, which one will you send to the next round?

GraduateShaftSimon and Garfunkel’s (but mostly Paul Simon’s) soundtrack for The Graduate is classic, and goes up against the iconic Shaft from smooth and funky Isaac Hayes.

BodyguardSNFA friend recently reminded me of a soundtrack I was obsessed with in high school that also featured a bit of Whitney.  Anyone else remember Waiting to Exhale?  Well, if you like The Bodyguard, go check it out.  Since starting this project of listening to more soundtracks, I have to admit that Saturday Night Fever has caught me off-guard by being a far more solid album than I expected.  Yes, “Stayin’ Alive” has been played out, but there are a lot more tracks to keep this in the running.

If you haven’t yet voted for Compilations in round 2, don’t close that tab until you visit here!

Soundtrack Madness: Artist Featured Albums

Featured Artist Quad

The soundtracks in this bracket all have one thing in common: they all heavily feature one particular artist, group, or style.  These soundtracks sound consistent and well-put-together not only because they reflect one era or genre of music, but also because they are shaped by the performers themselves.  As with the first bracket, the polls will be open for one week. And finally, most of the album images will work as links to places you can stream the soundtracks – please let me know if there are any issues. Also, please remember to vote based on the album, and not the film.  Let’s get to it!

Purple Rain (1) vs. New Jack City (16)

Purple RainNewJackCity

 

This begins on a personal level right off the bat for me, with the classic Purple Rain, a critic-favourite with an Oscar and a couple Grammys to its name, featuring one of the greatest musical legends of the century – Prince. It is up against a compilation of New Jack Swing that kept the game-changing genre in the mainstream charts for an extra few years, with tracks from Guy, Color Me Bad, Keith Sweat, and a Queen Latifah remake of Stevie Wonder’s classic “Living for the City” that mixes in samples from The O’Jay’s “Love of Money” – my favourite moment on the album.

Rushmore (9) vs. Help! (8)

Rushmore Help!

 Although Director Wes Anderson had hoped The Kinks would do the soundtrack to his wacky Rushmore, OST veteran Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo stepped in to intersperse the 60’s Rock with plucky instrumentals that could have placed this album in with the Scores bracket if it weren’t so vocal heavy.  Rushmore goes head-to-head with some actual 60’s Rock in The Beatles’ second feature film, Help!, which includes classics like “Ticket to Ride,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “Yesterday”.

Super Fly (5) vs. Magnolia (12)

SuperFly Magnolia

Super Fly is not just a classic Soundtrack.  It’s a staple album for any fan of funk and protest soul.  Curtis Mayfield made one of his best albums for this Blaxploitation film, providing not only a musical atmosphere to tell the story, but some of his own interpretation of the film as well. Aimee Mann was the obvious choice for the Magnolia OST since the film is inspired by her music in the first place.  If you are not familiar with Mann’s music, this soundtrack is an excellent introduction that includes some of her best songwriting.  “Wise Up” will especially forever remind me of the film’s emotional turning point, when the cast sings along to the soundtrack in one of my all-time favourite music moments in a movie.

Blue Hawaii (13) vs.                                                       Hard Day’s Night (4)

Blue Hawaii Well, it doesn’t get more epic than this matchup.  Blue Hawaii was released only 2 years after the island became a state.  Personally, I think it should sound a lot more “blue” considering the history, but honestly this is my favourite Elvis.  He is charming, not too soulful, and he has a freaking ukulele.  But can he beat the four boys from Liverpool on their first album of 100% original songs?  The first side of Hard Day’s Night is the most recognizable stuff with music from the film, while the second side contains music written for, but not featured in, the film.

The Graduate (3) vs. About A Boy (14)

GraduateAboutABoy

This is a fairly interesting matchup, because if you voted solely based on the popularity of the songs, or even of your knowledge of Simon and Garfunkel and/or Badly Drawn Boy, this would likely be a landslide.  The problem is, The Graduate is mostly a repackaging of Simon & Garfunkel songs that also appear on much better albums, while Damon Gough (Badly Drawn Boy) created both a great understated film score, along with a fantastic original album in soundtrack form.  However, repackaged Paul Simon is still Paul frickin’ Simon. Do what you will.

Singles (11) vs. Shaft (6)

SinglesOSTThis is probably the strangest combination yet: it could be renamed Self-Pity vs. Bad Assery. Singles was able to launch the grunge scene way beyond its Seattle roots, basically putting Alt Rock on the radio, and changing 90’s music forever.  Meanwhile, Isaac Hayes gave us 4 sides of original material, mostly instrumental film score with a few vocals here and there, and it remains one of his best selling albums to date (not to mention, one of the most sampled).  Voting will likely have to come down to a question of personal taste.

The Harder They Come (7) vs.                                      The Bodyguard (10)

HarderBodyguardAn iconic album that helped bring classic Reggae from Jamaica to America is up against the best-selling soundtrack of all time.  Though 20 years are between them, these albums are a perfect match for each other – both are compilations that heavily feature an artist who also starred in the film.

Harold and Maude (15) vs.                                  Saturday Night Fever (2)

HaroldandMaude

SNFTwo very different movies and soundtracks from the American 70’s are competing here.  Harold and Maude is an odd, existentialist film about a death-obsessed boy and a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor.  Cat Stevens offers a bit of simple hope in the midst of big questions.  Saturday Night Fever is a classic dance film that documents the subculture of disco night life to the sound of the Gibb brothers’ falsetto, which is just so much catchier than I ever seem to remember.

Soundtrack Madness: Compilations

Compilation QuadThe Compilations bracket consists of soundtracks that are most like a modern day playlist.  Each is a collection of songs, sometimes with a consistent genre or era, and other times brought together only by their connection to the story of the film they help to score.  The other three brackets will be posted this weekend, and all the polls will be open for exactly one week.  Please base your vote on the album as opposed to the film.  For the most part, the images of the albums have links to places you can stream the soundtrack, although some are not complete versions.  Also, you can check out the full brackets at March Madness: The Original Soundtrack.  Have fun!

Trainspotting (1) vs. Jackie Brown (16)

TrainspottingJackieBrownThe soundtrack for Trainspotting was so wildly successful that they released a volume 2, which is not being considered here.  The album is incredibly eclectic yet somehow works, with Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” introducing us to a strange mix of melancholy alt rock, happy pop, energetic punk, and relaxed electronic beats.  Meanwhile, one of Tarantino’s best soundtracks to possibly his most underrated film, Jackie Brown, intersperses some classic soul and funk with a bit of rap and some quotables from the film itself. Just as Shaft immediately conjures Shaft imagery, it’s very hard to hear some of this music without imagining Pam Grier as Jackie in all of her badass glory.

The Virgin Suicides (9) vs.                                     Natural Born Killers (8)

NaturalBornKillersNot to be confused with the original film score from the band Air, the soundtrack from The Virgin Suicides is given quite a bit of consistency with primarily 70’s folk/rock artists, with a bit of 90’s thrown in by Sloan and some of Air’s score.  Natural Born Killers, on the other hand, is a massively eclectic work of chaos. Trent Reznor will show up plenty in these brackets, but here he is a producer, bringing together Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Dr. Dre, and Peter Gabriel and some ever popular film dialogue (soundtracks loved to do this in the 90’s).

Pretty in Pink (5) vs. Stand By Me (12)

PrettyInPink StandByMe

Both albums (and films) have a pretty high nostalgic value. Both were released in the mid-80’s, but Pretty in Pink’s New Wave soundtrack is nostalgic now that the 80’s are retro, and Stand By Me had nostalgia in mind from the beginning, as the film was told to us as a childhood memoir from the late 50’s.

The Big Chill (13) vs. Easy Rider (4)

BigChillEasyRiderThe soundtrack is quite frankly the best thing about 1983’s The Big Chill, and could just as easily be called a best-of-60’s-soul compilation.  While The Big Chill looks back at the 60’s with longing nostalgia, Easy Rider is in the midst of 1969 with music that provides commentary on both the film’s story (of two bikers on their way to New Orleans), and the greater cultural climate of this important American era. Not to mention, this might be the earliest example of a true compilation soundtrack.

American Graffiti (3) vs. Juice (14)

AmericanGraffitiJuiceAlso known as 41 Original Hits from the Soundtrack of American Graffiti, this is truly an epic collection of 50-60’s pop music.  To be fair, most of the songs are less than 3 minutes long.  Juice may have a far more standard list of 14 tracks, but they are carefully chosen to present some of the absolute best of early 90’s rap and r&b.  The only way it could be improved is by adding some Tupac, since he plays the lead role in the film.

Romeo + Juliet (11) vs. Garden State (6)

Romeo_+_Juliet_Soundtrack_Vol._1 GardenStateI think these two albums represent the most recent soundtracks I have been inspired to purchase, with the exception of a few other Baz Luhrman directed films.  Appropriately, Romeo + Juliet has a great emotional mix of anger, sadness, hopeful peace, and ironic cheerfulness.  Garden State is more subdued; it’s a bunch of indie anthems all chosen by Zach Braff, who also wrote, directed, and starred in the film.  Something about his personal playlist seems to have spoken to a whole generation.

Reservoir Dogs (7) vs.                                                 Dazed and Confused (10)

ReservoirDogsDazed and Confused

The chronological first of many great soundtracks from Quentin Tarantino, and not the last we’ll see in these brackets. The soundtrack to Reservoir Dogs is set as though it’s a radio show, and provides a musical juxtaposition to to the story’s violence, which the album communicates through snippets of film dialogue.  Dazed and Confused is a 1993 version of American Graffiti, with another epic soundtrack featuring the much more gritty classic rock from the 70’s and 80’s.

The Life Aquatic (15) vs. Pulp Fiction (2)

Life Aquatic Pulp Fiction

At first glance it seems this might be one of the stranger match-ups.  However, there are a fair amount of similarities between these two soundtracks: Both soundtracks have been commercially successful and critically acclaimed;  they both include a decent amount of instrumentals; and both have themes relating to water, with the Life Aquatic’s Sven Libaek compositions, “Shark Attack” and “Open Sea” themes, and Pulp Fiction’s surf rock.  They’re still pretty different, and how you choose between them is your call.

Polls are now open for the Featured Artist brackets, so head over there if you haven’t voted yet!

Songs in the Key of Life – Stevie Wonder, 1976 album/ 2014 performance

SWperformance

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.

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SongsintheKeyofLifeSongs 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.

nathanwattsUntil 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.

businessmanThe 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.

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