Performance Review: Stevie Wonder at the Pepsi Center

Mar 24, 2015


Stevie Wonder at the Pepsi Center - March 17, 20215

Is there anyone who doesn’t like Stevie Wonder? On his current tour, Wonder is performing his 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life - one of Wonder's most critically acclaimed albums - from start to finish.

Wonder has made a major production of this Key of Life tour. Tuesday night’s show featured more than 40 musiciana: two guitarists, two trap drummers, two percussionists, six horns (three saxes, two trumpets and a trombone), three keyboardists, a harmonica player, between six and 14 backing vocalists, a 10 piece string section and a bass player.

Obviously an outfit of this size required great organization. Despite the obvious need for structure and planning, much of the evening still had a loose and sometimes improvisational feel to it.

Certainly the biggest impromptu moment and by far and away the biggest surprise of the evening was the guest appearance of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. The two had played an acoustic piano duet concert the same evening only a few blocks away. Wonder’s three and a half hour concert lasted longer than theirs, so they had time to get to the Pepsi Center and come on stage for the second to last Key of Life tune, “As.”

Perhaps coincidentally (or maybe not), Hancock played on the original album version of that tune 39 years ago. Probably because of that, he jumped on a synthesizer and added some funky stuff throughout the entire song. Corea, meanwhile, took some time to get up to speed. Phillinganes and he sat next to each other at two keyboards with Corea intently looking at what Phillinganes was doing for several minutes. Eventually, he got it and started to chip in on the long run out of the song.

When “As” concluded, Wonder started to talk about how much fun it would be to do one of Hancock’s tunes whereupon, he called “Watermelon Man” and the band pretty much put it together on the spot. Hey, that one wasn’t on Songs in the Key of Life! But, it was OK. Really OK.

Wonder also called off two tunes shortly after they began, “Knocks Me off My Feet” and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call).” On the first, some feedback crept into the mix so he stopped and when he started again a moment later, the sound was fine. On the second, he confessed he was “messin’ up” his harmonica part. It’s not often you hear that sort of thing in a major production show. On his second take, he nailed it.

However the album, and therefore, the concert started with slower and more obscure songs, such as “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Have a Talk with God” and “Village Ghetto Land.” These were followed by an instrumental “Contusion.” It wasn’t until the back to back hits - “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” - that the crowd started to jump and shout, or at least sing along.

Another deviation from the original album was Wonder’s use of the harpejji, a relatively new instrument Wonder started playing  in 2012. A cross between a guitar and a keyboard, the instrument  is played by tapping the strings. Wonder jammed on his new instrument for several minutes coaxing some pleasant chords and sweet melody lines.

There were some moments of awkwardness too. After the band finished the last Key of Life tune, “Another Star,” Wonder asked the crowd if it wanted more or wanted to go home. Guess the response. At that point he announced he was going to change his persona right before our eyes. He then explained that he was now “DJ Chick Chick Boom,” emphasis on the “Boom.” Then he repeatedly asked the crowd his name and we were supposed to loudly repeat it for him. Hummm…. Maybe I just didn’t get it.

He had some kind of machine that played record-scratching sounds and samples from some of his hits. During this part of the show, he had the band play about the first third of “Livin’ for the City” and “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” Finally, the band broke into “Superstition” and he let it run for 8 or 10 minutes, leaving the stage about two-thirds of the way through, wrapping up the concert.

At another point in the first part of the show, Wonder started a call and response with his backing vocalists, singing a phrase and expecting them to mimic it. After a few times of that, he said, “Hey, this is my red carpet. Don’t be walking on my red carpet.” Hummmm…. OK, maybe I just didn’t get it.

Another guest artist Tuesday evening was Gerald Albright, a performer who typically falls into the “Smooth Jazz” category. He also lives near Denver, so he was handy. Wonder brought him on stage to help with “Ebony Eyes,” the closer of the first set and one of those tunes from the 7 inch EP. Yet another “guest” artist was “Dorothy Ashby” who played harp on the original recording of “It’s Magic.” Unfortunately, Ashby passed away in 1986, but Wonder wanted her harp in the show, so he sang with her recorded harp part.

Wonder has long been a political activist and if people exist that don’t like him, this is probably a big reason. He was instrumental in creating a U.S. holiday honoring Martin Luther King. Songs in the Key of Life itself contains quite a few political statements and calls for social justice. Tuesday night, he made a pitch before the second set began for support for overturning state “Stand Your Ground” laws which have been blamed by some for creating, or at least, justifying some gun violence.

Overall, the concert came close to recreating the sound of Songs in the Key of Life. If anything, many of the tunes had a bigger sound owing to the massive band Wonder assembled. Also, some of the tunes ran longer than the album version to make room for solos by many different band members. More than anything, however, the concert was simply a joyful occasion because of Wonder’s sunny, upbeat personality and incessantly happy disposition.

First Set

  • Love’s in Need of Love Today
  • Have a Talk with God
  • Village Ghetto Land (strings only)
  • Contusion
  • Sir Duke
  • I Wish
  • Knocks Me off My Feet
  • String-Horn-Voice Jam
  • Pastime Paradise
  • Summer Soft
  • Ordinary Pain
  • Saturn
  • Ebony Eyes (Gerald Albright)

Second Set

  • Anti stand your ground speech
  • Isn't She Lovely
  • Joy Inside My Tears
  • Black Man
  • All Day Sucker
  • Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call) 
  • Ngiculela - Es Una Historia – I Am Singing
  • Harpejji Jam
  • If it's Magic (Dorothy Ashby)
  • As (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea)
  • Watermelon Man (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea)
  • Another Star
  • DJ Chick Chick Boom
  • Livin’ for the City
  • Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
  • Superstition