EmptyGreek Theatre, Los Angeles
Wednesday, Sept. 5
Led onstage Wednesday by his daughter, Stevie Wonder began an often funny, sometimes rambling but heartfelt monologue. He praised God; thanked his family, friends and fans; and playfully rued becoming "the world's youngest grandfather." And the sold-out Greek Theatre crowd just listened.
Ultimately, he wanted to explain why he is on his first concert tour since the mid-'90s. Wonder spoke of his pain and lack of motivation after his mother's death last year. But, he said, several weeks ago, "My mother's voice came into my ear: 'Boy, you better get your ass out there.' "
The line drew a huge laugh, of course, but it and the entire six-minute speech served as the perfect setup for a show that melded themes of joy, love and spirituality with fond memories. And what a show it was.
Wonder mixed his singular funk with gorgeous ballads, backed by a dazzlingly tight eight-piece band and three singers, including daughter Aisha Morris. In marvelous, confident voice, he delivered 130 minutes of hits and album cuts that mostly had the audience alternately rapt and raucous.
The set happily focused on Wonder's 1970s commercial and creative heyday. Indeed, his oldest song was 1969's "My Cherie Amour." There also was a rather pedestrian pair from 2005's "A Time to Love," but he spotlighted that magical four-album run from 1972-76, and not always with the most obvious choices.
Early in the set, Wonder played the first three cuts from "Innervisions" in order, and "Living for the City" was the only single. During "Visions," he offered some of the night's overt though not in-your-face political messages, evoking the aftermath of Katrina and decrying "Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus ... fighting each other, killing each other." Still in midsong, he cried: "Stop it, stop it, stop it! Stop the war. Stop the killing."
But the set also included plenty of light moments, including a dopily countrified take on "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" that followed a straight run-through of the 1970 hit. And he backed that with a left-field cover of Chuck Berry's "Memphis." There also was a hilarious male-vs.-female singalong on "Ribbon in the Sky." He had some fun of his own during that song, at one point adding maybe a hundred syllables to the word "sky" -- not milking it, just toying with it.
Among the many other highlights: the participatory reggae of "Master Blaster (Jammin')"; "Higher Ground," complete with trippy intro and some growled vocals; and "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," which opened with dueling bongos and remained awash in Latin rhythms.
Midset, Wonder drifted into an extended run of ballads, which featured some of the 57-year-old's most remarkable vocals of the night -- alternately breathy and powerful. But as lovely as the slow jams were, the show's energy sagged after a while.
But he raced to the finish with a slew of mostly uptempo smash hits, many truncated in medley form. It was a reminder that, had he chosen to, Wonder could have played a show stacked from top to bottom with nothing but hit singles.
One major gripe about an otherwise terrific evening: no horn section. The synthed brass on "Higher Ground," "I Wish" and especially "Sir Duke" simply cheated those classics. Maybe next time.
And here's hoping that next time isn't 10 years on.