Stevie Wonder Brings Funk Ferocity to MSG with 'Songs in the Key of Life' Performance: Concert Review

Ryan Miller/Invision/AP
The R&B great transports the faithful back to a time when albums were grand concepts.

One of the great and enduring figures in popular music, Stevie Wonder has nothing left to prove. He got his start as a teenager with Motown, went on to win 25 Grammy Awards in the ’70s and ’80s, and has pretty much coasted ever since. After all, Wonder hasn’t released an album of new material since 2005.

But rather than embark on a standard greatest-hits tour, Wonder decided it was time to dust off his magnum opus, Songs in the Key of Life, the Grammy Album of the Year in 1977, and perform its 21 songs live in concert, the first of which took place Thursday night at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Songs followed Wonder’s incredible trilogy of albums — Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale (the latter two nabbed Album of the Year Grammys in 1973 and 1974). For his next release, he took a couple of years to piece together what became a double-set, plus a four-song EP. At the top of his game, Wonder was gushing with material and the public responded by making it yet another No. 1 album that stayed at the top of the charts for 13 weeks and in the Top 10 for 35 weeks consecutively. The gamble clearly paid off for the Detroit-born soul singer.

Its stirring mix of bouncy R&B, gentle melodies, throwback jazz, gospel chants, Brazilian flourishes and even Funkadelic-style rock captured the imagination of longtime fans and newcomers alike. Wonder growled, cooed, cajoled with his vocals as well as various keyboards and harmonica, backed by a stellar band anchored by keyboardist Greg Philinganes, bassist Nathaniel Watts and drummer Raymond Pounds.

For MSG's Songs debut, Wonder surrounded himself with a virtual rhythm machine: three keyboardists (including band leader Philinganes), two guitarists, Watts on bass, four drummers (two on assorted percussion instruments), six horn players, six backup singers (including India Arie) and a 10-piece string section for several songs.

There were no real surprises — he played the songs in order as they appeared on the album — except for slotting in the lesser-known EP numbers at the end of sides two and three. Although including those songs was entirely appropriate, they took down the overall quality of the show a notch — let’s face it, there was good reason why Wonder left them off the four sides.

In an evening of highlights, certain songs stood out from others, but not by much. The entire song cycle held together well, with just a few moments when the concert setting didn’t mesh with the studio versions, such as on “Black Man,” which used the original track’s voices to enunciate the accomplishments of minorities in American history or the baby voices on “Isn’t She Lovely.” (Wonder introduced that ode to his first child with yet another of his children in the arms of one of his backup singers.) In another example of merging the recorded version with the live band, Wonder paid tribute to Dorothy Ashby, who played harp on “If It’s Magic,” by explaining he would sing the gorgeous tune a cappella, only backed by Ashby’s timeless string part.

The bulk of the show featured Wonder’s melismatic vocals, in a full range of octaves, inviting joyous sing-alongs, and lengthy jams and rhythmic repeats by the band that would go on for stanza after stanza, inviting gyrating dance moves from the crowd (Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Strahan were among the famous faces spotted at the New York show.). The most exciting sections from sides three and four were major workouts: the jittery staccato funk of “Black Man” (8:33 on the album), and the back-to-back finales, the masterful soul jam “As” (7:08 originally) and the Latin-tinged “Another Star” (8:08), capping off a thrilling night of ‘70s nostalgia. On “As,” which repeats the word “always” throughout, Wonder stretched the word in a scat worthy of Ella Fitzgerald, who he references on “Sir Duke.”

The show wasn’t without Wonder espousing his views, particularly about gun control. He said it was dedicated to the children who died at Sandy Hook in Connecticut. ”I challenge America and the world to let racism go and to let hatred go,” he said during a song break. “That’s the only way we’ll win as a nation in the world.” More specifically, he charged gun manufacturers and mortuaries with getting “rich and richer’ from gun violence.

Wonder, at 64, appeared relaxed. In several sections he took brief vocal and instrument breaks from his aggregation of keyboards (several pianos, Fender Rhodes, Hohner clavinet) and let the more-the-capable band fill in. But those moments were few and far between. As they wrapped up “Another Star,” Wonder exclaimed, “Yes, we did it!”

Already past 11 p.m., Wonder wandered off stage only to return moments later for an encore performance of “Superstition,” his 1972 megahit from Talking Book. What at first sounded out of place, actually fit perfectly, with the band locked in with funky ferocity. Knowing that it’s not everyday you get to see a group this large perform a R&B tune that great, you just wanted it to go on forever, for it was yet another song in the key of Stevie Wonder’s magical life.

Set List:

Side 1

Love’s in Need of Love Today
Have a Talk with God
Village Ghetto Land
Sir Duke
I Wish
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Pastime Paradise
Summer Soft
Ordinary Pain
Ebony Eyes

Set 2

Isn’t She Lovely
Joy Inside My Tears
Black Man
All Day Sucker
Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing
If It’s Magic
Another Star