Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Stevie Wonder, Secretary Of Fine Arts, at The Apollo Theater 

I can die now.

That's about the most Bangsian statement I can make after seeing Stevie Wonder and his band play a blistering set of soul classics at The Apollo Theater on Thursday, August 11.

For every rough and tumble funk jam he's authored, he's pumped out two mid-tempo ballads that sound at home on Lite FM, yet there's something a little bit punk about this musical icon. Maybe 'cause he's blind, maybe 'cause he's black, maybe 'cause he's political. Mass-appeal punk, surely, as the sound of the melodies he has written, sung, and played on his piano and keyboard and harmonica and damn near every other instrument are a permanent fixture of American culture. Despite missteps ("I Just Called To Say I Love You") and a low profile the last two decades (his soon-to-be-released new album A Time To Love will be only his second new full-length non-soundtrack work in the last 18 years, though he did play Live8), Stevie's star has continued to shine as the Jamiroquais and D'Angelos of the world have tried to imitate his style and new generations have gravitated toward his timeless artistry.

From the front row center seats of the first mezzanine at The Apollo, the bird's eye view was of one of the foremost artists in the hair-over-a-hundred-year-old history of recorded popular music doing his thing. In the second of two rare performances to benefit and raise awareness about The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (peep a good review of the first show here), some provisions of which are set to expire before the next presidential election, Stevie Wonder mastered two tasks; for the program's first hour, he served as the personable and often hilarious host of a symposium on the meaning of the Voting Rights Act while introducing guest artists and teasing the crowd with a couple of his own numbers. For the rest of the evening, he dug in behind the piano and keyboards and set about redefining the phrase "tour de force" with a 100-minute show of powerhouse musicality and showmanship.

Rarely does an artist receive a standing ovation just for walking onto a stage to speak, but of course Stevie got just such a reception from the crowd as he was escorted onto the Apollo stage by his assistant Brian. Once the house quieted down and Wonder began to speak, a few people in the crowd blurted out "We love you!" and other terms of endearment, but most fans were well-behaved as Stevie explained the reasons for the two benefit shows. I confess I had no idea that some of the provisions of the 1965 law passed by Congress to protect everyone's right to vote in this country are, alarmingly, set to expire in 2007. The Motown legend sat at the piano and played "Heaven Help Us All," a somewhat forgotten #9 hit from 1970. The song fit in with the lingering tone of religion in the air (Jesus apparently supports The Voting Rights Act) but also transcended it.

A long sports jacket couldn't hide the fact that Stevie has put on some pounds, and the hairline that leads to the famous mane of long, straight braided hair has receded to mid-head; yet somehow, Stevie could not have looked more resplendent. When he opened his mouth, it was awe-inspiring to hear how he's lost virtually nothing off his voice over the decades. The range is still there, all the fullness, the rich texture, the sweetness. You could tell from that first song that the vocals were going to be spot-on all night. He was that good.

He began "Heaven Help Us All" solo on piano, but offstage instruments joined in toward the end of the song, making it clear that a full band would be rocking the place for the evening. When the curtain came up, that band—I don't have their names, but the lineup was guitar, bass, drums, percussion, keyboards, sax, and four backup singers (three female, one male)—accompanied guest performer Chuck Jackson on his signature song, "Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)" (#23 in 1962). Chuck looked and sounded great. Stevie brought him back onstage for a quick a capella run through some of Chuck's other Top 40 hit, "I Don't Want To Cry."

Jersey City's own Richie Havens was the evening's other major musical guest. Seated and accompanying himself on his trademark acoustic guitar, he sounded fine doing Jackson Browne's "Lives In The Balance" and the Woodstock classic "Freedom," despite breaking a guitar string during the first song. Stevie called Richie back onstage and basically insisted that he play "that George Harrison song"—"Here Comes The Sun"—which Richie seemed sheepish about doing. His stool was summoned back onstage and while Havens sat, Stevie held a mic up to his mouth for the duration of the song. It was a cool, clearly spontaneous moment, but at the same time, I was almost pissed. No disrespect to Mr. Havens, but I'd already seen him before, at The Hoboken Arts & Music Festival a few years back. I'd paid a lot of money to see Stevie; it was Stevie I came to see.

When the guest stars were done and the speeches were over, Stevie Wonder sat at the piano bench. "Love's In Need Of Love Today." Yes! Have 29 years really passed since this was released? Aside from concerns about the singer's voice, the other great musical fear that plagued me in advance of the show—that the arrangements would somehow grate, with cheesy keyboard tones or inappropriate guitar or background keyboard fills—also was never realized. A full horn section would have made a big difference, but live sax plus backup keyboardist doubling up the parts sounded strangely ok. There were a few fleeting moments when the sax player hovered near Cheeseville, but just when you thought the song would go off a cliff and do a Thelma & Louise-style crash into Smooth Jazz Land (which is neither smooth nor jazz, discuss), the band would pull back and restore the proper essence of the song. Collective sigh.

Most of the sold-out crowd was at rapt, respectful attention, when they weren't dancing fools When requests were yelled, Wonder acknowledged them but remained solidly in control of the proceedings. "Let me do my thing," he said, and the people did. There was one moment in the show when Stevie asked what Al Sharpton's favorite Stevie Wonder song was, and apparently Rev. Al wasn't in the room at that time. Someone called out, "He likes 'Isn't She Lovely'" and Stevie quickly shot back, "Don't speak for the reverend!" Mentioning his new album, the release of which has been delayed several times already, Wonder spoke to Motown head Sylvia Rhone and Universal honcho Doug Morris, who were both seated somewhere on the floor, and kicked around the idea of a September 20 or 27 release date. It was odd, but also in keeping with the somewhat loose, intimate nature of the night.

That looseness found its way into the set, too. Not in a technical sense; the musicians were on point, and except for flubbing the first two lines of "Sir Duke," Stevie's vocal delivery was perfect. (At the beginning of the song, he started singing the second verse ["Music knows it is and always will..."] instead of the first ["Music is a world within itself..."]) The loose vibe manifested itself in the way Stevie and the band segued from one song to the next, sometimes stopping to throw in a verse or two of a song without playing the whole thing.

It's part of the R&B tradition that medleys are an intrinsic part of most live shows. Sadly, Stevie did not entirely buck this convention. Sure, it's kind of cool that he did a verse of "Rocket Love" while transitioning from one song to another and a quick stab at "Where Were You When I Needed You" (but not "Superwoman") at one point as well, but it's also frustrating as hell. It was kind of like when I saw Prince last year. I'd gladly sacrifice hearing parts of five or six songs I love in exchange for hearing one or two songs I love in their entirety. Maybe that's just the formalist in me, or the completist. It was bad enough that "If You Really Love Me" (which, incidentally, is Stevie Wonder's best song, by a head and a neck and a shoulder, and perhaps even the best song ever written, with the possible exception of "O-O-H Child") and "My Cherie Amour" (easily one of his 10 best, and this is a competitive list, mind you) were truncated. Only about two-thirds of each was performed, though that was enough to register as close to a full performance of those songs.

Many of the most important songs—the "Sir Dukes" and "You Are The Sunshine Of My Lifes"—were delivered in their full glory. "All I Do" was a juicy slab of funk-pop. "I Wish" was an instant party. "Superstition" and "Higher Ground" might as well have been lifted from the type of vintage performances you see in commercials for a Time-Life compilation CD. Hey, who brought the time machine?

After I saw both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in 1989, George Harrison stood alone atop the list of "living musical artists I've never seen who I'd most like to see." I never got to see him; I believe his only U.S. live appearance in the last 20-plus years of his life was when he sang "Absolutely Sweet Marie" at Bobfest at Madison Square Garden in 1992, a show I couldn't afford a ticket for as a college student. Funny, Stevie was there too.

When George died in November 2001, Mr. Wonder assumed that lofty title of Favorite Artist I've Never Seen. I figured I'd get my shot at seeing Stevie eventually, but I imagined it would be at Radio City Music Hall at best; at worst, Madison Square Garden. I never dreamed I'd be in the center of the front row of the first mezz at the cozy Apollo, looking down at a mere eight rows of seats between me and the stage, with an unobstructed view of Stevie's hands as they moved up and down the keys of a grand piano.

Hopefully I'll get to see Stevie again, though topping this Apollo experience is basically impossible. The fun part is that now I get to name a new Favorite Artist I've Never Seen and set about seeing him or her or them. Among the all-time legends, who do I need to see now—Brian Wilson? Neil Young? The Cure? Sonny Rollins?

Partial set list, incomplete, not exact order:

Heaven Help Us All
Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird) - Chuck Jackson
I Don't Want To Cry - Chuck Jackson
Uptight (Everything's Alright)
Lives In The Balance - Richie Havens
Freedom - Richie Havens
Here Comes The Sun - Richie Havens
Love's In Need Of Love Today
Higher Ground
Master Blaster (Jammin')
If You Really Love Me
My Cherie Amour
Rocket Love
All I Do
Sir Duke
I Wish
You Are The Sunshine Of My Life
How Will I Know (with Aisha Wonder)
Isn't She Lovely
Ribbon In The Sky
Where Were You When I Needed You
Send One Your Love
Do I Do
Did I Hear You Say You Love Me
So What The Fuss

If you're not familiar with Stevie Wonder's major albums, go buy Music Of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale, Songs In The Key Of Life, Hotter Than July, and a good collection of the '60s hits. Now. If you can, do yourself a favor and find Where I'm Coming From, the criminally overlooked 1970 masterwork that sold a paltry 7,833 copies in the U.S. after SoundScan was instituted in 1991, and is now out of print, awaiting reissue.

If you are familiar with this music, the set list speaks for itself.

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