Wednesday at the Wells Fargo, Stevie Wonder brought his 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life through town for the second time in a year. The first departure he made from the set list came seven songs in, when the 65-year-old musical polymath added an extended version of The O'Jays' "Family Reunion" to the middle of his own "Knocks Me Off My Feet."
"I wanted to do this song because we are all a family," he said, after dedicating the 1975 Sound of Philadelphia hit to "all those we have lost to gun violence and irresponsible policing" (though he was quick to add that "there are far more good ones than bad ones").
"It's all about being a family," he said during the interlude. While typically magnanimous in spirit, he used it as an opportunity to provide individual showcases for the team of back-up singers and three dozen or so musicians with whom he shared the stage. "I don't care if you're black, white, yellow or brown," he said, "because I can't see you anyway."
The social relevance of Songs was much on Wonder's mind on Wednesday. "Is this the City of Brotherly Love?," he asked before he played a single note. "If that is truly so, then I'm going to ask you to fix all the problems in this country, and the rest of the world!"
He flashed a smile then, and reminisced about "so many great memories" in Philadelphia, from spending his 16th birthday at the Uptown Theater on North Broad Street, to his relationship with legendary deejay Georgie Woods.
But he quickly got serious again, explaining that while it's obvious that "all lives matter," he emphasized "my need to say Black Lives Matter, because Africa was the beginning of civilization, and you can't have the tree without the root."
With that, he made the natural segue in explaining why he's reprising his magnum opus again: Because "more than ever in 2015," as the first song on the album says, "Love's In Need Of Love Today."
The show that followed made its way through Songs, the most ambitious of the dazzling string of Wonder albums, beginning with 1972's Talking Book, that caught the former boy genius of Motown at his mature creative peak. Originally issued on two LPs plus a four-song EP called "A Something's Extra," Songs has room for everything. "Sir Duke," a boisterous celebration of music itself, was the first song to bring the crowd to its feet on Wednesday. The instrumental funk workout "Contusion" followed, along with "Village Ghettoland," a still timely social commentary that Wonder, his keening voice still in superb shape, sang accompanied only by strings.
Unlike when he came through last October, Wonder broke the album in two halves this time, giving himself and the mostly middle-aged interracial audience a 20-minute intermission. The performance was also plagued by some snap-and-crackle sound mix problems, particularly in the early stages.
The second set began with the joyous "Isn't She Lovely?", which Wonder originally wrote for his then-unborn daughter Aisha. She accompanied her father as a back-up singer last time but was absent Wednesday, since she is soon to give birth herself later this month. That song gave him the opportunity to showcase his harmonica playing in a extended solo that slyly quoted his own later hit "Master Blaster (Jammin')." And in turn, the next song, "Joy Inside My Tears," demonstrated his still prodigious skills as a deeply humane, extemporaneous vocalist, or to put it another way, a soul singer.
At times the sound mix was grating, particularly on the sampled children's chorus coda to "Black Man." And just as Songs itself is not Wonder's tightest album, the show was a bit loose and baggy at points.
But those are quibbles. On the whole Wednesday's show was a luminous experience in which Wonder's mind-boggling musicality and beatific spirit illuminates the room and all those within it. Highlights were many, but it would be tough to beat "Ngiculela - Es Una Historia - I Am Singing," in which he supported himself masterfully on a stringed percussive instrument called a harpejji before transitioning into a prayerful version of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready."
"There's a train a comin'," and with Stevie Wonder conducting, you'd be foolish not to get on board.
After Songs finished off with "Another Star," Wonder went into a weird gimmicky portion of the show in which he instructed the audience to refer to him as DJ Tick Tick Boom. He proceeded to kill momentum by playing samples of songs by The Weeknd and McFadden & Whitehead before finally getting down to the business of slaying the crowd with non-Songs songs of his own like "Living For The City" and "Superstition."