He may have sold over 100 million albums, notched 32 chart-topping singles and swooped up 25 Grammy Awards, but amidst all the accomplishments, Stevie Wonder’s paramount project will always be the 21-track, multi-rhythmic melting pot “Songs In The Key Of Life.” And with its 40th anniversary right around the corner, the 1976 masterpiece that’s influenced practically everyone and still sounds ahead of its time was the perfect subject for his relatively rare return to the road, filling up most of the United Center for the second time within just the last year.
It was hard to fault a 65-year-old who gave so generously up until that point, especially when a full-length jam finale through “Superstition” once again rewrote the entire rule book of funk n’ soul much like “Songs In The Key Of Life” continues to accomplish four decades after its debut.
During what’s billed as the final encore lap of the overwhelmingly acclaimed show, Wonder, his massive band, string section and troupe of background singers confirmed the material’s musical and topical relevance time and time again, kicking off with the just as applicable as ever “Love’s In Need Of Love Today.” Throughout the next three solid hours (split briefly by an intermission), Wonder kept the socially-minded subjects and soulful grooves brewing from the spiritually yearning “Have A Talk With God” to the racial justice anthem “Village Ghetto Land” and his personal musical influences salute “Sir Duke.”
With everyone on their feet, the celebration continued with the brassy splash of “I Wish,” the romantic glow of “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and the chillingly redemptive “Pasttime Paradise,” all delivered with the absolute perfection that could only come from someone the caliber of Wonder. And though the back half was slightly more laidback and introspective as a whole, “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Black Man,” “As” and “Another Star” had no trouble matching the electricity of the front portion.
Given the length of the opus, coupled with the inclusion of a few impromptu covers along the way, fans started trickling out at pretty consistent intervals between 11pm and midnight. After the full album treatment, the set list canvas was entirely open and Wonder spent the first few minutes assuming his DJ Tick Tick Boom altar ego, spinning snippets of disco through Bruno Mars, but those who remained probably wished for any of his countless originals, as evidenced in the segment’s lackluster reception.
The legend returned to his usual performance self for some rapid fire renditions of “My Cherie Amour” and “Do I Do,” though the truncated versions were a mere tease for what could have been, while massive smashes “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” “Higher Ground” and “I Just Called To Say I Love You” (amongst others) were also notoriously absent. Even with such quibbles, it was hard to fault a 65-year-old who gave so generously up until that point, especially when a full-length jam finale through “Superstition” once again rewrote the entire rule book of funk n’ soul much like “Songs In The Key Of Life” continues to accomplish four decades after its debut.
For a second helping of classic soul, catch fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Isley Brothers headlining Narski Music’s “A Night of Music and Comedy” with Roy Ayers and Guy Torry on Saturday, October 24 at the Emil and Patricia A. Jones Convocation Center at Chicago State University (benefiting the Mayfield Family Foundation). For additional details, visit www.narskimusic.com.