By Brian Ives
“I forgot my own words…” It was a surprising, funny and endearing moment during Thursday night’s opening show of Stevie Wonder‘s new tour at Madison Square Garden. Just three songs into the concert – which saw him performing his 1976 classic double album opus, Songs in the Key of Life, in its entirety – it was, in a way, a sweet moment in a show full of them.
It came during “Village Ghetto Land,” during which Wonder stood, away from his keyboards, holding the mic crooner style, accompanied by a full string section. There’s not much to laugh about in the song: the lyrics include “See the people lock their doors/While robbers laugh and steal/Beggars watch and eat their meals/From garbage cans.” But while Wonder takes his art, and his message(s) seriously, he is capable of laughing at himself. His flub was a moment that both displayed Wonder’s incredible artistic ambition and his humanity as well: this is a guy with an impossible amount of talent, and even he can make a mistake. And – crucially – he can dust himself off, have a laugh, and move on.
And while the show had some other minor technical glitches (a few instrumental solos weren’t audible until moments into the solo), they happened in front of the most supportive audience: the sold out show was packed with fans who greeted nearly all of the songs – not just the hit singles – as classics. Wonder’s tours tend to be “greatest hits” affairs, and with a catalog like he has, who could begrudge him that? That said, there was a real sense of occasion to this show: it felt unique to not hear him perform “Higher Ground,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Master Blaster” and some of his other huge hits. Also unique was the opportunity to hear lesser played ones like “Joy Inside My Tears,” “All Day Sucker” and “Ordinary Pain” (the latter of which he played on what he called his “thug piano,” a beat-up looking upright).
The show mostly followed the running order of the album. Opening with the absolutely gorgeous “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” he pretty much had the audience in the palm of his hand from the first few notes. The album’s pair of number 1 singles, “Sir Duke” and “I Wish,” offered obvious highlights, but equally as interesting was “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” which led to an extended jam and one of his many mind blowing harmonica solos throughout the night. He also stretched out on “Ordinary Pain,” on which he highlighted his six backing singers. Indeed, he tried to give some shine to his entire band during the night, and that was no small feat: besides the singers and the string section, there were two guitarists, three keyboardists, two drummers, two percussionists, a six-piece horn section and his bass player/musical director Nathan Watts (special guest india.arie joined for a few songs as well, including “Saturn” and “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing”). It would be easy for a band of this size to end up being a bit Vegas-y. But Wonder isn’t just a great musician and performer, he’s a great producer, and knows which musicians to use on each song; the entire ensemble were rarely all onstage together, and even Watts spent some time on the bench. There may have been a lot of musicians, but Wonder was economical: no one was performing on a song if they weren’t needed.
Before singing anything in the second set, Wonder spoke to the audience: “Before I leave this world, I want everywhere in this world to be accessible for everyone,” whether they are blind, deaf, paraplegic or quadriplegic. He speaks with such earnestness, you realize that he actually believes that this can happen, and it makes you believe it a bit too. And then back to humor: “I challenge New York to beat Los Angeles in making it happen!”