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Review: Stevie Wonder's 'Songs In The Key Of Life' at the Wells Fargo Center

The 64-year-old genius brings a classic album to South Philadelphia.

It was a cold and miserable November night, and the traffic getting to the Wells Fargo Center was brutal. And all Stevie Wonder was going to do, anyway, was play a 38-year-old album from start to finish. What’s the big deal? Wouldn't it have been easier to just stay home, punch up

Songs in the Key of Life

on the sound system and nurse your Eagles wounds on the sofa?

That would have been the wrong move. Because the show that the 64-year-old musical marvel put on Sunday night more than lived up to its billing as the concert event of the season. It also served as a rare, wondrous example of the kind of magic that can happen onstage when an extravagantly big band of exemplary musicians sinks its teeth into an opus of Key of Life's magnitude in support of a creator still at the height of his performing powers.

Of course, such opportunities don’t come along all that often because few opuses of Key Of Life’s magnitude exist. From the moment Wonder walked on stage on special guest India.Arie’s arm and exclaimed “Philadelphia Freedom!” till he finished the non-Key of Life encore of  “Superstition” accompanied by over 40 musicians and singers more than three hours later, it was clear that it was as special an occasion for its star as it was for the interracial, intergenerational (though leaning to Wonder’s years) sold-out crowd.

“There’s so much history, and so much life in it,” Wonder said in introducing the 1976 double album, which capped a brilliant mid-1970s run that included masterworks such as


s and

Fulfillingness' First Finale

. “There are some great things about it, and some not so great things that unfortunately are still happening in the world.”

With that, Wonder, in red sunglasses and a black jacket whose silver highlights  sparkled in the light, was off, with a trio of socially conscious songs with spiritual overtones: “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Have a Talk With God” and “Village Ghetto Land.” Those three set the tone for an album that celebrates life and love while sending a stern warning about neglecting your fellow man.

To fully bring to life the 21-song album, including the four cuts from the bonus EP

A Something's Extra

, which were mixed into the middle, Wonder employed some musicians from the original recording, such as bandleader Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, bassist Nathan Watts and Philadelphia guitarist Ben Bridges.

They were augmented by an ensemble that could be employed in a variety of powerful ways. For the brassy jolt of “Sir Duke,” there was a six-piece horn section. In “Village Ghetto Land,” Wonder’s sorrowful tone - “Some say we should be happy with what we have, even in 2014” - was put across with a 10-member string section.

Wonder stuck to the set list, but didn’t limit himself to re-creating the recording. With Philadelphia native Keith John, the son of R&B great Little Willie John, Wonder took the opportunity during an extended “Knocks Me Off My Feet” to trade playfully competitive escalating vocal lines, and give the younger singer a showcase on his father’s “Fever.”

He shouted out  Philadelphia International Records boss Kenny Gamble, and sang part of McFadden & Whitehead’s anthem “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.”  He was glib and playful about recent tabloid rumors: “If you want to hear what is happening with me, you will hear it from my mouth.”

He asked audience members to stand if they thought “America has a problem with guns,” joking that he’d get someone to tell him how many of them did. “The only people getting rich are the manufacturers and the mortuaries,” he said, adding that he had no truck with those who don’t agree with him, “because I just want you to live.”

Wonder sang beautifully all evening. He never strained or acted the show off, even as he displayed his trademark upper register melisma, and rumbled low, or scatted excitedly, as needed. In his own way, he’s underappreciated as a singer, because he does so many other things effortlessly well.

In an encore medley, greatest hits like “Do I Do” and “For Once in My Life” were given short shrift. But for

Key of Life

, each song was presented with utmost care. Album closers “As” and “Another Star” were melodious celebrations, with horns and drummers and percussionists and backup singers grooving in unison.   Wonder soared vocally on “Ngiculela - Es Una Historia - I Am Singing” with India.Arie, dazzlingly accompanying himself on a percussive instrument called a harpejji that he’s picked up in the past few years.

And on a stunning “If It’s Magic,” which might have been the highlight of the entire evening, he sang along to the original track played by the late Dorothy Ashby, wondering aloud: “If it’s magic, why can’t we make it everlasting?”

Introducing that song, he repeated a favorite saying: “If your heart is big enough, love someone. And if it’s really big enough, love everyone.” The power of a Stevie Wonder performance is such that you leave the building thinking that those are words you might be able to live by.


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