By Johnny Memphis
About two hours into his over-stuffed, at-times-glorious “Songs in the Key of Life Performance” concert at the Hartford XL Center, Stevie Wonder broke away from his 34-piece orchestra and started to play solo, tapping his fingers on a small stringed instrument that looked like a rectangular dulcimer. The instrument is called a harpejji (invented in 2007) and it sounds like a cross between an acoustic guitar and a keyboard. Stevie has been playing the harpejji for three years and he has got it down. In Hartford, even more than when he played keyboards or harmonica, Stevie was in the happy zone on harpejji, totally focused, making exquisite music, familiar but fresh. It is Stevie’s new toy and he was smiling, and waving his head from side to side when he played it.
When Stevie was a baby his father, gave him bongos that Stevie played constantly in the crib, according to Mark Ribowsky’s candid 2010 biography Signed, Sealed and Delivered, The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder. Stevie’s father Calvin Judkins was a nasty piece of work who pimped Stevie’s mother Lula Mae on the streets of Saginaw and Detroit until she finally got rid of him. At least his father gave Stevie some drums, which piqued Stevie’s unquenchable curiosity about all things musical. “I got the thirst for wanting to know. ‘What is that? What is it made of? I know how it sounds, but how does it look? Can I touch it?” Stevie said in an interview with Billboard magazine.
When Stevie was toiling as a teenager in the Motown hit factory he used a clavinet on “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Ba-Day” in 1968, making him the first pop musician to use this hybrid electric keyboard that sounded like a mutated electric guitar. The springy, clangy sound of the clavinet became a key part of Stevie’s sonic vocabulary, and he later utilized it to devastating effects on songs like “Superstition.” When Stevie turned 21 and took over total production of his records, he discovered the capabilities of synthesizers, which helped create the magnificent aural soundscapes of his genius records of the early to mid ‘70s. His childhood friend John Glover said, “Stevie was looking for ways to make the beat sexy, not necessarily by what the lyrics would say but the sound, what the sound would say. It was like what he said later in ‘Sir Duke’- ‘You can feel it all over.’” In the end, like Duke Ellington, the whole band became Stevie’s instrument.
In order to do justice to the re-creation of the “Songs in the Key of Life” album, Stevie brought a band to Hartford that was more than twice the size of Duke Ellington’s. Joining Stevie on stage was a six-piece horn section, eight back-up singers, an eight-person rhythm section, an extra harmonica whiz, and a ten-piece string section with a sexy female conductor who could really dance. All the women in the band were knock-outs because as Stevie said in Hartford, “The blind gotta have fine.” You get the impression that Stevie is quite the ladies’ man, which is corroborated by Ribowsky’s biography.
The concert began with the album’s first cut, “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” featuring the string section and Stevie’s opening lines, “Good morn or evening friends, Here’s your friendly announcer, I have serious news to pass on, to everybody.” Dressed in a black dashiki choir robe with white piping, Stevie was in great voice and the string section taut. This was an auspicious beginning but unfortunately, it was followed by “Have a Talk with God,” which is when I have seriously bad news to pass on to everybody. Somebody needed to Have a Talk with the Soundman. When the band kicked in, the bass was too loud. I mean WAY TOO LOUD. SO MUCH BASS IT OVERSHADOWED EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE BAND. MY PANTS WERE VIBRATING. What is the point of bringing Stevie Wonder and 32 other world-class musicians to town if you are going to bury their music with too much bass? Eye, eye, eye.
The first set peaked early with the back-to-back, dancing-in-the-aisle hits “Sir Duke” and “I Wish.” There was nowhere to go but down from there and we did. Hampered by the bad sound, we slogged through the many tuneful, but overlong and ultimately boring songs that fill out the album. When you are playing in a sports arena (16,000 seats, mostly filled) it is better to stick to the hits. The extended album cuts that transport listeners in their living rooms don’t translate in a big barn. The second set began well with Stevie announcing that his daughter Aisha was due to give birth to Stevie’s second grandchild later in the month. “Just don’t call me Grand-dad,” quipped Stevie, 65, who then launched into the song he wrote when Aisha was born, “Isn’t She Lovely.” For the first time all evening Stevie got out his chromatic harmonica, which he played with relentless virtuosity over the coda. This man may be the most expressive harmonica player ever, as well as our planet’s best soul singer.
Along with dutifully working his way through Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie had some fun and went off script. He improvised a melodic line that the string section learned on the fly. He whipped up a Parisian double harmonica melody that evolved into a blues jam with saxophonists running to get their instruments. In the encore Stevie became DJ Tick Tick Boom and spun modern day hits like “Can’t Feel My Face” before stringing together a medley of his own that included a rocking “Living for the City,” a surprisingly moving “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and the final coup-de-grace, “Superstition.” Throughout the night Stevie repeated his theme of love and unity saying, “All lives matter, of course,” and remarked on how distressed he was by all the terrible news that comes our way. “I’m glad I’m blind so I don’t have to see that stuff.”
In the end the concert was sprawling like the album, exhaustive and exhausting with wonderful moments. Before the encore began Stevie asked the audience rhetorically, “Do you want to go home?” While my interior voice was saying, “Well, yeah, Stevie, actually, I would be glad to wrap it up,” my external voice was shouting, “No!!!” I feel equally ambivalent about the concert as a whole. The show was too long, at times boring, but also fantastic. And late in the show, when Stevie slid over to his new instrument, the harpejji, time stopped. It was like hearing the music of his mind. He got a groove going and started into Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” and then switched to a heart-breakingly beautiful “People Get Ready.” When a man has this much talent he doesn’t need a giant band. He doesn’t need a massive album to recreate. All he needs is a good song. The older black dude sitting behind me said, “That’s my song, there.” Mine, too.
Postscript: Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life Performance” show at the Harford XL Center (formerly the Civic Center) on October 11, 2015 was the fifth stop in a twenty-city North American tour that will culminate with a show at Madison Square Garden on November 24, 2015. Here are some of the other songs that Stevie included in the four shows prior to Hartford: Take the A Train (Duke Ellington,) Imagine (John Lennon,) Waiting in Vain (Bob Marley,) Boogie on Reggae Woman, Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing, Uptown Funk (Bruno Mars,) Family Reunion (O’Jays,) Besame Mucho, Hold On (En Vogue.) Milord (Edith Piaf,) Night Time is the Right Time (Ray Charles,) Who’s Lovin’ You (The Miracles,) Michelle (The Beatles,) Tequila (The Champs.)