Stevie Wonder and Usher Get Fun and Funky at Red Rocks

As part of season five of the six-day SeriesFest, an ever-expanding annual Denver event dedicated to television pilots, Stevie Wonder headlined Red Rocks on Monday, playing to a sold-out crowd. Many who bought tickets weren’t aware the Wonder concert was part of a television-series festival, however, so the traffic jam at 6:30 p.m. entering Red Rocks, for what thousands assumed would be a 7:30 p.m. concert, was epic.

But when the 69-year-old Wonder took the stage in a black, purple and blue swirl jacket at 9:05 p.m. — just after a crowd-pleasing Stranger Things 3 trailer — everyone in attendance, including television marketing bros, couples on date nights, groups of older ladies ready to boogie together, and my nine-year-old daughter and myself – seemed to forget just about everything on earth except that we were seeing a living legend under the stars on a gorgeous Colorado summer night.

Before the show, my daughter and I YouTubed early footage of Wonder slaying on The Ed Sullivan Show; playing a wicked drum solo that went viral a few years ago; and mesmerizing in a Beat-Club performance during his in-the-zone 1973 Innervisions period. “Papa, do you think people will even believe that we saw Stevie Wonder?” she whispered as the Detroit-bred star, who scored his first number-one hit on Motown’s Tamia label at age thirteen in 1963, smiled, shouted “Are y’all ready?” and jubilantly welcomed the audience to his first-ever concert at what he repeatedly referred to as “Red Rock.”

Wonder held court at the front of the stage — piano to his left, keyboard facing the audience — as he and his sixteen-piece band, with a half-dozen backup singers, kept the hits coming, despite the multi-talented musician and songwriter’s throat problems. Throughout the night, Wonder treated his vocal troubles with tea, cayenne pepper, honey, and even joyful Freddie Mercury-style call-and-response exercises with the audience, trying to break the scratchy dam.

At one point, he called out “God is good!” and “Love is good!” over and over, beckoning the crowd to join in. After Wonder got the 9,000-strong audience to call out “Red Rock! Red Rock!” with him, he launched into a blazing version of “Higher Ground,” which is where the set really took off. Like much of the night, “Higher Ground” was deeply and deliciously funky, but Wonder’s huge band showed off its talents by adding new, jazz-fueled turnarounds and flourishes, like toppings on an already tasty sundae.

A stirring dance-party version of “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” turned into an extended Cuban jazz-fusion jam that bled right into a dreamy take on “Sunshine of My Life,” and Wonder made no attempt to hide the continued struggle with his throat. “For Once in My Life” — as Stevie Wonder puts it: “an old Stevie Wonder song” — featured a beautiful harmonica solo from Wonder, and a powerful arrangement that ended with him standing and wailing in more call-and-response ecstasy with the audience.

After repeatedly getting the crowd involved in singing, and even requesting heaven-reaching gospel-blues solo improvisations from each of his six backup singers, Wonder took out the ace hidden deftly in his sleeve.

“The good thing about being a singer is knowing other singers,” he quipped, “because if you don’t think you can hit it, they can hit it even better.” He teased that he was bringing out “someone you love” to help on vocals, and then Usher emerged to sing “Ribbon in the Sky” and “Overjoyed” — with Wonder feverishly feeding lyrics between lines. “You’re too fast for me,” the forty-year-old R&B singer joked at one point as Wonder muttered lyrics to him, so Usher stood up to leave the stage and thank “the greatest of all time, Stevie Wonder.”

Wonder convinced Usher to stick around for a rousing version of the 1970 hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” that concluded with Usher dancing for a good ten minutes on top of Wonder’s piano while the band vamped. It was a thrilling, fun-filled sequence.

The American musical treasure, made blind by retinopathy during a premature birth, was enthusiastic as ever; the rest of his set ran through Grammy-winning hit after hit, from “Living for the City” to “I Wish,” and he joked about things like having a penchant for kicking couples out of his shows for heavily making out.

“They think I can’t see them,” he said, cracking himself up.

The big Red Rocks crowd belted out “I Just Called to Say I Love You” as my daughter and I walked toward our car to beat the traffic. “How do you play music without, like, knowing where the keys are?” she marveled as she held my hand. “It’s pretty impressive.”