Was it worth the wait? Let me hear 13,000 people say “Yeah!”
It’s been 27 years since Stevie Wonder last performed in the Twin Cities. He kept a full house at Target Center on Sunday waiting another 23 minutes. (He’s always in his own time zone.) But the next three-plus hours made up for what Minnesotans had been missing all these years.
The concert promised to be a presentation of 1976’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” his bestseller and a Grammy winner for album of the year. But, in the process, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer delivered so much more, demonstrating his humor, personality, commitment to social issues and just how he works with musicians, including a 10-person string section of local players.
No one disputes that Wonder is one of the all-time greats in popular music. But since his 1970s heyday, he has been an unbending perfectionist in the studio who has been painfully unprolific in his recording output. Moreover, onstage, Wonder, who tours infrequently, has been prone to oddly paced concerts, marked by indulgent musical tangents and long-winded monologues between songs.
On Sunday, after being escorted onstage by soul star India. Arie, Wonder started with a little preaching about the need for harmony and love in the world. The message of his seven-minute preamble was consistent with the messages of the songs that would follow: idealism, positivity, can-do, hope, spirituality, sunshine and love. It’s always about love with Wonder.
Recreating “Songs in the Key of Life” gave Sunday’s concert structure. The first set was designed to visit Sides 1 and 2 of the 21-song double album. Even with a couple of the tunes from the project’s EP grafted on at the end, the 51 minutes of recorded music stretched to 75 live, thanks to Wonder’s instincts.
He wanted to demonstrate his love of jamming, so he had a violinist ad-lib for a bit, then he scatted a melody and had the entire string section play it back to him. Other members of his oversized band (there were 40-some folks onstage with him) also jammed, too, giving you a glimpse into the creative process of one of the most revered one-man bands in modern music.
Wonder also did a fun bit of call and response with his six backup singers, where he would sing a line and then an individual vocalist would sing it back. This routine eventually built into three female singers doing an old number by the group En Vogue.
The highlight of the first LP — and arguably all of “Songs in the Key of Life”— was the back-to-back hits of “Sir Duke” and “I Wish.”
What a treat on “Sir Duke,” which celebrates the joy of music, watching Wonder listen to his great musicians interpret his marvelous arrangement and turn the arena into a roomful of giddiness.
Nathan Watts’ bass (he played on the original recording) made “I Wish” swing as Wonder’s keyboard showed how he defined keyboard funk in the 1970s.
There were a few moments in the first set that didn’t work, including the screeching backup singers during the last half of “Ordinary Pain” and the two selections from the EP — “Saturn,” which sounded like a Disney movie duet with India. Arie, and “Ebony Eyes,” an inferior lyric set to a vaudeville-meets-circus tune.
The unexpected forays off the script turned out to be the highlights of the second set (which started with Gary Cunningham, the husband of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, and some Minnesota legislators declaring it Stevie Wonder Day). While playing the harpejji (a relatively new instrument that mashes up guitar and keyboard), he made a speech about equality and love and then sang Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” segued into the instrumental lark “Tequila” and topped it off with a taste of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
That was a savvy detour to spice up a set devoid of big hits. Still, no matter what song, whether the schmaltzy Hallmark-worthy ballad “If It’s Magic” or the race-history commentary “Black Man,” Wonder’s voice sounded supple and true, filled with the appropriate emotion, rising into those Steviesque melismas that are soulful without being churchy.
Wonder was in such a great mood that, for an encore, he playfully renamed himself DJ Tick Tick Boom and started spinning tunes, including Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” before playing his own hits live — a medley of “Part-Time Lover” and his clavinet-propelled “Higher Ground,” “Do I Do” and “Superstition,” delivered with a full cast of real live musicians.
At 64, Wonder proved to be as wonderful as one could possibly hope. He seemed so excited about the evening that he talked about coming back at Christmas time to play two nights — one to raise money for needy children, the other for his own coffers. Even if it’s holiday time next year, that’s about 20 months, not 20-some years.