Stevie Wonder July 1, 2008 Fiddler's Green
How long has it been since Stevie Wonder performed in Denver? He headlined an intimate date at the Paramount Theatre the last time around, and I vividly remember a moment early in his set when a petite woman near the front of the room went from ecstasy to agony because the late-arriving attendee with a ticket for the seat in front of her turned out to be then-Denver Nuggets star Dikembe Mutombo -- all seven-feet-plus of him.
Although a lot's happened in the thirteen years or so since that 1995 night, Mutombo is still playing (the NBA's oldest current baller, he's signed to the Houston Rockets) and so is Wonder. And if Stevie's game isn't what it was back in the day, his abundant talent and radiant spirit makes him well worth seeing, and admiring, even when he's coasting.
Instead of arriving amid a flourish from his oversized band (thirteen supporting musicians by my count, including three drummers/percussionists, two guitarists and two extra keyboardists), Wonder simply ambled onto the Fiddler's stage on the arm of his daughter, Aisha Morris, who served as a background singer throughout. Then, after a typically rambling greeting to the crowd, he settled down at a piano adjacent to an electronic keyboard (he'd switch between the instruments throughout the evening) and launched into "As If You Read My Mind," "Master Blaster (Jammin')," "Did I Hear You Say You Love Me" and "All I Do," a quartet of tracks from the 1980 album Hotter Than July.
Talk about an unusal platter on which to focus. After all, July was a transitional album that served as a bridge between the unalloyed brilliance of '70s masterworks such as Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfilligness' First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life and the often icky easy-listening period that stretched from one end of the Reagan administration to the other. Still, the choice exemplified his musical direction. His supporting players were extremely talented from a technical standpoint but notably facile, reeling out the sort of highly polished licks that recalled the most commercially successful but least artistically interesting period of jazz fusion. (This was especially true of a patience-testing mid-set jam in which every instrumentalist was given a whopping 24-bar solo.) The approach softened the grooves rather than supercharging them, and while the results remained pleasant, they rarely became more than that. The raw materials were of higher quality than the stuff typically heard in Vegas lounges, but the songs would have fit in perfectly at such venues.
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From that point on, Wonder alternated crowd pleasers such as "Knocks Me Off My Feet" with quizzical tangents, including a mini-medley of the Stylistics "Betcha By Golly Wow!" and the Chi-Lites "Have You Seen Her" that he performed using a talk box of the sort he initially experimented with on 1972's excellent Music of My Mind LP. (Rock listeners tend to associate the device with -- eeesh -- Peter Frampton.) Such pace-changers caused the audience's attention to drift at times, but his arsenal of tunes is so vast that he could always grab it again. Renditions of "Higher Ground" and "Living in the City" put the crowd back in his pocket.
The second half of the concert vacillated in a similar way. A jazz showcase for Wonder's daughter proved quite tedious, but immediately thereafter, he launched into "Isn't She Lovely," which he wrote for her when she was a baby, and when they both teared up and became emotional, the throng emitted a simultaneous "Ahhhh!" While this routine is a regular part of the set, as indicated by a June 28 review from Chicago, their reaction appeared to be entirely spontaneous, catching both of them by surprise. And a duet with a radio-station contest winner on "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," detailed in a Latest Word blog, was cheesy in an unexpectedly charming way.
That wasn't the case with a section devoted to '80s ditties that bordered on dreck. Wonder followed a funny aside about the number of people present who'd made love to one of his songs with "Ribbon in the Sky" and "Overjoyed," both of which are capable of deflating the erections of any dude with even a passing knowledge of his greatest ballads. Moreover, the closing section, which concentrated on somewhat abbreviated versions of classics, juxtaposed works of genius such as "My Cherie Amour," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)," "Sir Duke," "I Wish" and the epochal "Superstition" with (you knew it was coming) "I Just Called to Say I Love You." Where's Jack Black in High Fidelity when you need him?
In the end, though, none of the missteps mattered. Simply put, Wonder is among the greatest popular musicians this country has produced, as he demonstrated anew with an intense interpretation of the moody "Visions" -- the show's finest moment. Moreover, his occasional excursions into supper-club slickness didn't dim his light -- not on this night, anyway. -- Michael Roberts