There is an expected magic that comes along with seeing a performer like Stevie Wonder live — he's a seminal pop star, a genre-less marvel. And most of all, he's a musician's musician, able to play a multitude of instruments alongside anyone brave enough for the challenge. There were plenty of challengers who jammed on songs with Wonder last night at the Pepsi Center until there was nothing left of the melody. There were dozens of players gracing the stage throughout two sets over three hours. Of the many great moments, the highest point may have been when jazz legends Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea (who were also playing last night at Boettcher Concert Hall) joined Wonder for one of these surprise jams, worming their way through Wonder's "As" and Hancock's "Watermelon Man."
There were so many cameos and features throughout the show, it was hard to keep track, but some highlights included several moments when daughter Aisha Morris sung with her father, when Colorado resident and jazz saxophonist Gerald Albright joined in for "Ebony Eyes" and of course, the work of Wonder's longtime bassist and bandleader Nathan Watts, who took the spotlight many times. Still, Wonder was the main focus, moving from keyboards to pianos to even a set of turntables set up around the stage and often standing up to sing or play harmonica (he performed a verse or two of "Isn't She Lovely" with his voice, before moving through the rest of the song's verses with just his harmonica.) He also jammed on the harpejji through a version of Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" — which was connected to an earlier duet of "Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing" with Wonder's back-up singer, Jasmin Cruz.
Flawless in his movement between instruments, it was still the sheer power of Wonder's voice that was the most captivating — he played a sort of call-and-response with his many back-up singers, laying down an improvised melody and having them sing it back to him. He even played the game with the audience a time or two, bringing a level of intimacy that seemed unfathomable in an arena. But Wonder accomplished a closeness through his off-the-cuff conversation and many jokes, only further endearing the musician to his multi-generational crowd.
Along with the humor came some needed seriousness, as Wonder took an opportunity to use the opening of the second half of the show as a time to speak on gun violence. The musician addressed his previous stance on boycotting states like Florida that uphold "Stand-Your-Ground" laws, instead choosing to support people through using his stage as a platform to spread love, as well as donating $150,000 from this current tour to related organizations. These instances of political action from superstars can often come off as inauthentic or forced — but just like everything else that happened on the Wonder stage last night, it was clear his heart was in it — his conviction was only reiterated by the performance of his own consciousness-raising songs like "Village Ghetto Land" and "Black Man."
Still, the night was devoted to the performing masterful tracks from 1976's Songs in the Key Of Life and Wonder delivered, spreading songs like "Have A Talk With God," "Joy Inside My Tears," "Saturn" and "Another Star" (which he went into just after Corea and Hancock left the stage) throughout the hours, weaving tracks together with extended jammy collaborations with the multitudes of musicians. For "If It's Magic" Wonder took a slightly different turn — the only time in the evening when he played to a track, the musician chose to honor deceased collaborator Dorothy Ashby's harp playing from the original recording, sliding his beautiful voice over it.
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There were a few challenges when it came to the sound — multiple percussionists, horn players, guitarists, back-up singers and a string quartet were all part of the massive show and with dozens of musicians on the stage at one time, the sound could be muddy. At several points throughout the night back-up singers vocals became blown out and the bassy low end instrumentation came crashing through some delicate melodies. But Wonder never missed a beat and when these issues arose he handled them with humor and grace, humbly stopping songs and starting them over to the benefit of the audience's full enjoyment of the show.
From the instrumental jams with a string orchestra to the many special musical guests and Wonder's ability to bend his classic songs into new shapes, it is hard to believe that every moment witnessed on stage last night was part of a single evening's performance. But for an artist like Stevie Wonder there are clearly no limits — he is one of the greatest performers alive, and at least one arena full of people can attest to that.
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