Photos by Morgan Keuler
Stevie Wonder’s concert last Friday at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery wasn’t just great, it was Greatness. He embodies talent, dignitiy, love in such a way that assigning an adjective to describe his stature doesn’t cut it; his Greatness is a tangible thing, not a condition. From the standing ovation that greeted him before he said a word to the Boomers dancing in the aisles in defiance of security to the raucous applause that lingered way after his departure from the stage an hour and a half later, the crowd keenly felt that Greatness. And Stevie emanated it with humility and mastery, not to mention a perfect voice and a kickass band.
We arrived late at the winery and were forced to the very back row of the lawn, up against the wooden fence barricading the place in. Holding 4,000-some people, it’s a good size, though moving to the front of the lawn was impossible as early-arrivers set up massive camps of deck chairs and blankets and travel tables and picnic baskets. Which I would do too, were I an early-arriver, and I spent $100 on a ticket, and this was the only show of the year that I attended.
Stevie came out and, standing center stage with his daughter Aisha Morris, gave a long and heartfelt introduction to the concert, dubbed “A Midsummer Night’s Wonder.” He explained that following the death of his mother he went through a period of detachment and depression. After a while, her voice came to him and said, “You better get your ass back to work,” and he realized that he needed to do an outdoor summer tour to give back to his fans. He intimated that there was financial risk involved on his part, which is hard to imagine given the $60 general admission ticket price and $100 VIP.
And then he sat down at the keyboard and made beautiful music.
From the first note out of his mouth, it was clear that Stevie’s voice has only grown richer with age. No scuffs, cracks, or weakness; his voice is still the most classically tuned yet groovily accented in all of soul music. But I didn’t recognize the first song, which was weird.
What followed was a tryptich from Innervisions, my second-fave Stevie album (first place goes to Fulfillingness’ First Finale), starting with “Too High,” segueing into “Vision,” and finishing with a slamming version of “Living for the City” (damn, I just goosebumped while typing that). Stevie’s band consisted of THREE percussionists, two Latin-style and one kit durmmer, as well as a guitarist, bassist, second keyboardist, and a three-piece backing vocal section. They were, not surprisingly, total crack—whip-crackingly sharp, totally in-time for every song’s changes.
He blasted into “Master Blaster” and then blew into “Higher Ground,” iconic songs both outrageously funky and pointedly political. “Golden Lady,” one of his many fully-flowering ballads, was gorgeous, an anthem to love. Stevie led a killer group singalong to “Ribbon in the Sky,” a song I wasn’t familiar with, that had the men in the crowd doing one vocal part and the women doing the other. Stevie held the audience easily, joking about the men coming in too fast, that if they performed well they might get “a little somethin’-somethin’” later on that night.
“Overjoyed” is another one of those perfect love ballads, another chance for Stevie’s voice to linger long on notes, draw the most irresistable inflection out of his lyrics. An extended percussion solo started “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” perfectly executed and jazzy until the full-blown soul of the song’s crescendo.
I made my way down to the VIP seats as “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” started, and the crowd around me went berzerk. Yuppies, parents, grandparents, IT guys, fannypackers, and a few 30-somethings were immediately up and dancing in the cordoned-off walkways, overwhelming event staff. Flashlights flared and voices were raised, but the crowd, partially wine-drunk and totally high on Wonder, were oblivious, lost in one of the grooviest songs of all time (I’m goosebumping again). “I said a lot of foolish things, that I really didn’t mean…” Better than good—Greatness.
As a coda, Stevie took the song into totally unexpected territory: “I think that song could work as a country song, don’t you?” The crowd wasn’t sure until the band fell into an oldtime Nashville swing session and Stevie, warbling like a good ol’ boy, sang “Sighned, sealed, deliverred, Ahm yers…” They played it out, country-style, which got a huge laugh from the audience and proved two things: 1. Stevie’s songs are so potent, so fully-formed and of themselves, that they can me molded into any form, and 2. Stevie can sing like a redneck.
He covered Chuck Berry’s “Memphis,” leaving out, according to the Boomer standing next to me, the best lyrics, “pure poetry,” according to this guy. Dude also told me that he last saw Stevie some 30 years ago when he opened for the Rolling Stones on the Cocksucker Blues tour. Now that’s legacy.
“My Cherie Amor” had everyone singing the “la la ls”s, a 4,000-piece backing band in perfect unison. “Sir Duke” is simply another one of the best soul/R&B/funk/pop/undeniably brilliant songs ever recorded, played, or performed, and might be my favorite Stevie tune of all:
Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance, and clap their hands
But just because a record has a groove
Don’t make it in the groove
You can tell right away at letter A
When the people start to move
You can feel it all over!
(More goosebumps. Damn!)
“Isn’t She Lovely” must’ve been gold to those aging Yups on blankets down in front with empty bottles of chardonnay and aging Yup spouses by their side, as was “Sunshine of My Life.” It’s hard to find better love songs in all of pop music, ones easier to remember and sing along to. “Superstition,” which I figured would be the set closer, was raucous, though in the back the keyboard intro—one of the rockinest in R&B—could’ve been a little louder. (It must be said, though, that the sound quality at the winery was superb, even out in the cheap seats.)
Before the finale, Stevie went into another monolog, this one briefer than his introduction, talking about our capacity to love and overcome the haters: “They can just die, I tell them. They’re not doing anyone any good.” He had led a chant of “Stop the war! Stop the hate!” earlier in the set, and though the banter sounded canned, he countered it with some hiphop inflected “wha-wha!”s and other slangly exclamations. And even Stevie’s canned banter cuts to the core. Dude should run for president.
“I Just Called to Say I Love You” closed out the set, another mega-hit that everyone and their mother and their nephew knows by heart, another pillar that holds up the pantheon of pop music. Like almost every song he played that night, it’s a song you’ve heard a zillion times in your youth, began to appreciate in your early adulthood, and finally ingested it as part of your thoughts, the soundtrack to your life, as you got older. Stevie’s songs are nourishment in the junk-food world of pop music, the songs that keep us fit and ready to carry on. Seeing him in concert was a feast.