With Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Stevie Wonder all hitting the road in ’08, it has become quite the year for reclusive songwriters finally hitting the concert stage. An infrequent-at-best performer, Wonder has kept from the standard washed-up piano player casino circuit by making his “Wonder’s Summer Night” tour a bit of an event for the music world. Unfortunately, this news seemed to miss much of Boston, as empty seats and sections spotted the moderately-sized Comcast (formerly Tweeter) Center everywhere you looked.
The stage started off pretty empty itself when Wonder came on helped by his back-up singer (and daughter) Aisha Morris. Taking the mic, he began a long speech before playing a note, riffing on everything from the championship Celtics to Obama in a style humorous, but not altogether memorable. The crowd began to grow impatient with the rambling, but just when it looked like we were in for An Evening Chat with Stevie Wonder, the 13-piece band came out and he got down to it.
From the first few notes, he proved to everyone there that though age had receded his trademark braids a bit, it hadn’t sapped his energy. He bounced around his piano stool, and even occasionally walked around and climbed up on it – certainly not something you’d expect him to be doing. A performer as much as a songwriter, he led the audience in singing and clapping along so much you just wanted him to ignore us for a minute and play some music. If the tour circuit dries up, the man’s got a future in a Vegas residency.
Vocally, however, he proved less impressive. Though on target with the sound, hitting the notes and scat-riffing around familiar phrases, the diction was so unclear any words you didn’t already know were incomprehensible. I don’t know whether this is a result of age, or a standard issue when he leaves the cozy confines of the recording studio, but on songs where the sing-alongs weren’t drowning him out, it proved frustrating.
If he was trying to compensate with the enormous band though, he overdid it. Though the songs are sonically complex, three percussionists adds little to the mix except more solo spots, and Wonder’s keyboard playing is good enough that having two additional pianists seems almost insulting. Indeed, on a long calypso instrumental where every band member had a solo spot (like I said, it was long), Wonder’s jaunts around the piano keys on numbers like “Isn’t She Lovely” so thoroughly upstaged everyone else you wish he’d try out a solo song or two.
Such experimentation would not have gone over well with the temperamental crowd, however, as prone to wildly dance and shout during songs they knew as to go for beer breaks or check email during songs they didn’t. These outdoor venues are a boor on the music lover for a reason and, though you can’t fault those being there for the party over the performer, it makes focusing on the stage difficult. Wonder knew how to work the group though, drawing cheers for his imitation of the Boston accent and attentiveness for his inspirational messages about overcoming hardship, his own history implied but never stated. Eventually een he grew frustrated with the constant cat-calls though; after the fifth or sixth “I love you Stevie!” he shouted back “I can’t talk if you’re talking too!” like an exasperated kindergarten teacher.
Adding to the crowd’s wandering attention was the show’s poor pacing. All the songs one might want to hear were there (with the notable exception of “I Just Called to Say I Love You”), but they were all clustered in the one-two-three blow of the finale. While that made for a very exciting twenty minutes of music, it meant the whole middle chunk was one bland slow song after another. They quickly began to sound the same, with good exceptions like new song “Keep Fooling Yourself, Baby Girl” (“Anyone recording the concert tonight, turn that off now. I don’t want this shit leaking for someone else to do.”) balanced by bad exceptions like a stomach-turningly overdone “I’m Gonna Laugh You Out Of My Life” by his daughter, who sounded like the singer the strip club puts on in the wee hours of the morning to get people to leave. On albums like Songs in the Key of Life Wonder has such a stockpile of fast upbeat material it’s a wonder (pun intended) he didn’t mix more into the wannabe jazz standards.
For those that made it through that – or came back from the beer lines in time – that finale proved worth the wait. One crowd-pleaser after another was performed with the energy Wonder had built up in the slow section, a tipsy crowd dancing through the aisles despite the ushers' pleas to return to seats as hits like “Sir Duke” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” were wrung out for all they were worth. Working the crowd on fun singalongs – except when a radio contest winner came out to duet with him on "Superstition" and didn’t know the words – Wonder proved that, with a little more vocal and setlist care and a few less instruments on stage, he had the potential to entertain crowds on tours far more frequent than he undertakes today.
As If You Read My Mind
Did I Hear You Say You Love Me
All I Do
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing
Living for the City
Keep Fooling Yourself, Baby Girl
Sweetest Somebody I Know
I’m Gonna Laugh You Out of My Life (Nat King Cole cover, daughter on vocals)
Isn’t She Lovely
Ribbon in the Sky
Have a Talk With God
My Cherie Amour
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
Do I Do
Living for the City (reprise)