Thursday, July 17, 2008

Stevie Wonder's Miracle

As we sat there at the mainly wretched Fiddler’s Green in Englewood, Co. the thing that struck me was the wide-ranging nature of the crowd. Every age group was represented, every race, every level of rock-starry self-importance or Joe six-pack ordinariness. It was really different than most concert experiences. The last time I remember a crowd like this was The Jackson’s Victory Tour. When the somewhat portly, but beautifully beaming Mr. Wonder took the stage with his 13 piece band the mood of the crowd solidified, and the aforementioned differences present melted into one gigantic love-fest. There are few concerts I see these days that I would term magical-but, as always, Stevie Wonder has a way of lifting the mundane reality of our everyday existence to a rare, life-affirming place.

This was the fourth time I had seen Stevie Wonder, and my wife’s first and we both went in with expectations pretty low. After all, Stevie’s output in the last two decades has been sparse and unsatisfying to my ears. He has consistently produced charting hits, and kept his icon status untarnished through the loving and intelligent charity work he has always done. But, let’s face it, after Hotter than July none of his albums have had the broad appeal of his classic work. His early Motown hits stand with the greats of the era (Marvin, Smokey, James Brown etc.) as some of the best. This show was a bit short on these (most notably present were “My Cherie Amour” and “Signed, Sealed , Delivered” with a little Obama love thrown in), focusing on his early and mid-seventies masterworks instead. That period (1972-76) ,however, stands as one of the richest periods in pop music history. Like the Beatles or the Stones’ great periods, that five album run ( Music Of My Mind, Fullfillingness’ First Finale, Talking Book, Innervisions, Songs In The Key Of Life) stand singularly in pop music as an impressive achievement-by anyone’s standards. So, when he started digging in to the deep cuts like “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” an incredibly emotional version of “Isn’t She Lovely”( with daughter Aisha whom the song is written about –now a beautiful adult singer clinging to her father. Mid-song they both broke down in tears and, it is safe to say, there was literally not a dry eye in the house), the real value of Mr. Wonder became clear. He didn’t write a few songs that made the charts; he CHANGED the direction of popular music. Musically, he brought and unstoppable beat back to pop, making even the sappiest singles danceable and at least a little funky, but lyrically he opened up the floodgates. Songs like “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” take mere sentimentality and raise it to a level of heightened spiritual awareness. No small accomplishment.
And so it went for over two hours; hit after hit after anthem, after beloved staple. And what I said earlier about his later work being of less consequence; well there were people around me who shrugged when he played a medely of “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” but melted down during “Ribbon In The Sky” or “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a record store guy over the last 25 years is; music is great because YOU think it is great. Of course there has to be some aesthetic agreement about what is great and what isn’t; but transcending that has to be the real ability that a song can have to lift the spirit of man. I can name a hundred songs that are stupid, formulaic, trite and so on yet are rightfully beloved by millions. Stevie Wonder succeeds on both levels. He is a musician’s musician and simultaneously the people’s poet.

This last fact, that Stevie Wonder cuts across so many lines of culture and delivers emotional and musical sustinence to such a broad spectrum of listeners puts him in a very rarified group of artists indeed. One thinks of Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Lennon/MCcartney maybe Sinatra at some level, but the list is short. And of them, only Stevie Wonder is still out there touring, and making people happy through his performances. There are so few artists that can veer smoothly from genius to schmaltz and back again and keep the entirety of their audience happy.

Post show, the album that has drawn me in almost non-stop is Songs In The Key Of Life. What an amazing achievement that album is. It is one of only a handful of albums that I listen to all the through-never skipping any song. The fact that it was a sprawling 21 song double album makes the accomplishment even more impressive. It is such a wonderful amalgam of Soul, Funk, Rock, Jazz and Stevie (his own category) that it becomes more and more endearing as the years pass. If I ever did have to grab just one album before a fire engulfed my house, I’d probably roast with indecision as I stared at Songs In The Key Of Life and Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. I really believe Stevie Wonder will be one of the few artists that history takes with it as proof that the era meant something.

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