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Stevie Wonder‘s surprise pop-up concert at Central Park’s SummerStage on Aug. 17 was to promote the extension of his Songs In the Key of Life Performance tour for an additional (and final) 21 U.S. dates. But don’t think his exclusive live focus on his 1976 opus Songs In the Key of Life meant Monday’s mini-concert was purely an exercise in nostalgia.
Yes, he more than satisfied with a generous eight-song helping from Songs (only 2 to 3 were promised pre-show), including stone-cold classics like “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “As.” But between songs, the soul icon proved he’s far more plugged into 2015 than many of his Baby Boomer peers.
In addition to dropping a bit of Kendrick Lamar at one point — “we gone be alllRIGHT” Wonder shouted with glee — he also offered a parody of The Weeknd’s No. 1 hit “Can’t Feel My Face.”
“You can’t see me when I got my clothes off, and I love it,” Wonder sang to the tune of the Billboard Hot 100 Fest headliner’s song. Yes, Stevie Wonder dirtied up a song from notoriously dirty singer-songwriter Abel Tesfaye.
Wonder didn’t merely display interest in today’s pop culture, though. Aside from jokes and musical ad libs, he used his stage time to address gun control, bullet accountability and the underprivileged. He even changed the lyrics of one song to explicitly call out the fact that “Village Ghetto Land” has not disappeared from America nearly 40 years after he sang about purchased police officers and starving children.
While Wonder nodded briefly to police brutality during his concert (which included a quick press Q&A in front of the whole audience), the R&B genius elaborated on the subject while speaking to Billboard backstage after the show, turning the discussion to criminal reform.
“I think the judicial system as a whole is jacked up in this country. I think it needs an overhaul, a fix,” Wonder told Billboard. “When you put people that have done very small crimes in the same [prison] as a person who has done a hard, life crime, it’s ridiculous and unacceptable. So then people who’ve done a little thing — maybe they’ve dealt a little marijuana — they’re in a situation where they become hardened criminals being around others like that. People don’t care — they just want to be protected, but they’re making it worse.”
As for racially motivated murders, Wonder says he can hardly believe it’s still a problem in this country. “As a person who’s blind, I don’t get how we’ve been talking about this racial thing the whole time. It’s so stupid. Stop it already. Fix it!” he said.
But Wonder was wistful, too, during our interview, bringing up an unprompted childhood memory of his mother bringing him to a faith healer at a local fair one time to be cured of his blindness.
“I remember my mother would cry so much: ‘My son is blind. Why did you do this, God?’ ” he recalled. “And one time, when I was 8 years old, I was like, ‘Mom, you’re making my head hurt with this crying. Maybe God has another plan for me, something bigger than me seeing.’ “
Even during such reminisces, Wonder quickly returned to the present — you get the sense he enjoys remembering but keeps his head in the present. And as for the future, Wonder teased that new music might be coming sometime in 2015 during his show.
“I’m listening to a little bit of everything,” Wonder said of his current musical tastes. “I like Kendrick’s album a lot, and I like Weeknd a lot, too. I love music. I love change. I’m challenged always by the new. In the new, there’s something that’s you in there. I don’t ever feel intimidated. I don’t ever think, ‘Wow Stevie, you’re so great!’ I think ‘God, I thank you every day for allowing me to be alive.’ “
As for Wonder’s live stage presence in 2015, even while he’s performing material from a double LP made in ’76, he sings, plays and laughs with as much vitality and energy as if the songs were released 39 days ago, instead of 39 years. Check out his tour dates to catch the Songs In the Key of Life Performance tour.
This article was originally published on Billboard.com.
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