Yes, I'm delighted to report that I disproved those mock-"Superstition" lyrics ["Very Sold Out Tickets"] in my WW preview, and at the last minute, did indeed manage to garner one lil' spot on the guest list for the Stevie Wonder concert, in order to file this report for the loyal LocalCut multitudes. Halfway through last night's show, I leaned over and waggishly said to my "opposite number" at the Oregonian, "I just wish he'd lay off the new stuff and play some classic shit!" I couldn't have been more kidding. It might as well have been the Innervisions tour, as Stevie played literally 2/3 of the tunes from that, perhaps his greatest album—including, after opening with the never-truer "Love's In Need of Love Today," a triple-play of the aforementioned album's opening run: "Too High," "Visions," and "Living for the City"—lacking only the latter's "New York! Just like I picsha'd it!" vignette to make it complete. It was a dream setilst—a generous, two-hour-plus parade of not just hits, but some deep album cuts too, led by a grand master who was clearly present and engaged, never just phoning it in to say he loved you.
Wonder, wearing a bright white tunic, was first led out by his daughter, Aisha Morris, and said a mindful hello to the audience, mentioning his mother's recent death as a pivotal event for him. Contemplating a mourning-period break from live performance, he related, he heard his mother's voice in his head saying, "You betta get yo' ass out there...." So, thanks, Lula, for gifting us with him the first time and again now, after your passing. Her granddaughter Aisha joined two other backup singers once Stevie sat down at the keyboard and his eight-piece band (two guitars and keyboards each, three percussionists, and longtime bassist/bandleader Nathan Watts) assembled behind him.
It was amidst that run of Innervisions songs that Stevie—thank God this is a blog post, not a print review, so I don't just have to call him "Wonder"!—let us know what a special night this would be: As "Visions" drew toward its close, he launched himself into a passionate improvisation, first on the theme of "I can't believe...," including something like "I can't believe I'm still doing this and I turned 57," (or was it "I can't believe I'm still singing about this in 2007"?) then moving on to an admonition to "Stop the hate! Stop the war!" which needless to say got the audience all riled up. Then, he played at admonishing himself "Gotta stop gettin' carried away with my feelings," but fortunately, he did anything but. There were several other extended improvisational passages during the show, too, including almost-fully-formed song ideas, complete with directions to the band, that he seemed to generate on the spot. Speaking of the audience, it was, needless to say, replete with yuppies and boomers, but there were also a lot of kids there, and it was thankfully one of the more racially diverse crowds I've seen at a Portland show.
After "Livin'," Stevie kept the pace up with "Master Blaster (Jammin')," during which he demanded a "guitar battle" between his axemen, and a transcendent "Higher Ground," also from Innervisions, before closing out that album's first side with an extended "Golden Lady." Two exquisite ballads followed, "Ribbon in the Sky" and "Overjoyed." As with all the evening's repertoire, they demonstrated that—unlike so many entertainers of his age—time has somehow made his superbly expressive, elastic voice only stronger. Then, Stevie exhorted his percussionists to "Do that thing that y'all do!" which led right in to a funky jam on "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing." And next came "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered (I'm Yours)," which, though it might have seemed impossible, threw the entire crowd into an even higher level of ecstacy—and then hilarity, as Stevie followed the song proper with his attempt at a "country version," complete with audience singalong once he'd schooled us on getting the proper twang on "I'm yawrs." "I'm from Detroit, and [even] I know" what a real country accent's supposed to sound like, he chided us, and even threw in a chorus of Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors" to demonstrate his affection for the Nashville sound and talent for mimicry.
Stevie continued the comedy by relating a story about trying to fool around with a pious church girl in his youth, then launched into the song he said he wrote for her, "My Cherie Amour." Next came a one-two punch of Songs in the Key of Life: a deliriously funky "Sir Duke" with extended jam, and "I Wish," wherein the band taught a master class in polyrhythms, and followed Stevie through some intricate stop-start cues. Then, Aisha came and sat by Stevie on the piano bench as he sang the song he wrote upon her birth, "Isn't She Lovely." It wasn't the first time on this night that he busted out his famous chromatic harmonica, but it was the most memorable, as in the middle of the solo he and his daughter toyed with it back and forth (she only mimed playing it, though). The next album to get Stevie's focus was Talking Book
, with "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" followed by "Superstition" (on which Watts switched to synth bass to replicate the record).
But ohh did Portland embarrass itself at that point in the evening. Stevie started riffing on James Brown singing "Hey, hey, I feel allright!" and then invited members of the audience up to take a crack at it—specifically, Caucasian
members of the audience. The first volunteer, a shaved-head kid named Benjamin, acquitted himself admirably, leading the band at Stevie's direction through a pelvic-thrusting "One time! Two times! Three times!" exercise. But the three who followed were truly pathetic—they had literally no rhythm or singing ability, but that didn't stop them from making utter fools of themselves, and not in a good way. "Hey, I feel all white" was what they should have been singing, and the audience collectively longed for the Apollo Theater clown to come out and drag them offstage.
After that awkward interlude, Stevie introduced the band, and also acknowledged local musician Lee Garrett in the audience, who co-wrote "Signed, Sealed and Delivered" with Stevie, as well as a couple other tunes which he played brief snatches of, "It's a Shame" and "Let's Get Serious." A perhaps-obligatory "I Just Called To Say I Love You" followed, then a heartfelt "Another Star," bookending the show with songs from Key of Life
. A moving, eloquent closing speech reminded us all that we were "born with a free spirit, to choose how you want to do your life. We are all born free and forgiven. [Writer's note: so hopefully, reader, you'll forgive me from quoting not verbatim but from my memory and notes.] And our hearts are not only made to pump blood to our bodies. They are made to spread love. So next year, when you all make your decisions of who you're going to support, don't just vote for a person to lead the United States. More than just that, vote for someone who can make a United People of these United States." With that, but without an encore, one of the most gifted musicians and powerful performers I've ever seen graciously left the stage. No-one could have asked for anything more.
Photos by Todd Fleming