ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, JULY 14, 2008
Stevie Wonder is one of the most influential singer-songwriters of our time. He’s been covered by everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Boney M., from Jeff Beck to Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. Grey-haired grannies groove to the advertising-jingle vibe of “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, while streetwise hip-hop kids drool at the thought of sampling the ultra-funky clavinet lick from “Superstition”.
Few voices have brought as much joy and happiness to the troubled human race—and boy, can we use that supreme soulfulness right about now. Cue the opening track of Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life album, “Love’s in Need of Love Today”.
Following a grating welcome by ET Canada’s Erin Cebula—I can do without pushy media celebs encouraging me to relax and get to know my neighbours—Wonder was led onto the stage by two backup singers, including his daughter Aisha Morris. After profusely thanking the crowd for showing up, the gregarious 58-year-old expounded on his previous trips to Canada, recalling how he’d once encountered a local disc jockey who went by the same name as him, and, more importantly, how he’d met one of his idols, jazz master Oscar Peterson, in Toronto.
Then he dedicated the night’s performance to the spirit of Peterson, and the strangely subdued (i.e. older) crowd settled in, waiting for the expected string of deathless hits to unwind.
It was quite a wait. Generous soul though he is, Wonder takes his time when it comes to rolling out his best-known material. He spent about an hour offering up secondary hits like the romantic ballad “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and the reggae-tinged “Masterblaster (Jammin’)” before delivering a bona fide classic in the form of 1973’s “Higher Ground”. Although his vocals were spot on during the latter song—as they were throughout the entire show—the live arrangement didn’t project the urgent spirit of the original.
Or maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ frenzied rendition.
At one point Wonder called Morris over to centre stage to sing a song on her own, and the stunning beauty—who resembles supermodel Iman—blew everyone away with a voice every bit as expressive as her dad’s. Her solo display was followed by “Isn’t She Lovely”, the bouncy 1976 number that was written about her birth. Close-ups of her beaming face were flashed on two large video screens as her adoring father sang her praises.
Those were the type of heartwarming moments the show delivered in spades, as Wonder and his crack 14-piece band laid the love on thick with old gems like “My Cherie Amour” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”. He interrupted the poignant “For Once in My Life” to get things swinging with the horn-driven tribute to Duke Ellington, “Sir Duke”. Most of the crowd was on its feet and getting down by the time Wonder rolled out the jaunty “I Wish”, which hit number one on both the R & B and pop charts back in ’76.
There wasn’t a lot to beef about during the two-hour set, just a little. The lowest point came when Wonder took his audience-participation shtick a tad too far by inviting a contest winner up to sing along on “I Just Called to Say I Love You”. It was the type of sweet, selfless gesture you’d expect from him, but it also made that 1984 ditty seem even hokier than it already is.
Also hard on the ears was Wonder’s incessant use of a talkbox on a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”. Doesn’t he realize that that thing’s only good in small doses, like when asking people if they feel like you do?
My only other minor complaint was that Wonder didn’t top off his two-hour show with an encore, when I was so ready for “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”. Then again, after all those other uplifting tunes, that ultimate ode to the power of love might have been too much for the romantics in attendance.
Their happy hearts were near bursting by that point.