Stevie Wonder November 29, MGM Grand Garden Arena.
As obvious a choice as Songs in the Key of Life might be for whole-album-performance treatment based on its quality and timelessness, Stevie Wonder’s 1976 landmark wouldn’t seem like a truly viable candidate. Not only is it lengthy—two LPs and a bonus 7-inch, totaling 21 songs and an hour and 45 minutes—it’s also wildly elaborate, a buffet of musical styles making use of dozens of instrumentalists and vocalists in its original studio form.
Yet Saturday night, Wonder did right by his Songs. The 64-year-old legend spared no expense in bringing his masterwork to life inside the MGM Grand, employing an army of more than 30 accompanists, including robust horn and string sections and a flock of backing singers. His arsenal also featured neo-soul chanteuse India.Arie, a guest throughout the tour who added an air of distinction to what already felt like a momentous occasion.
The tunes unfurled in their familiar-for-decades order, apart from the four bonus cuts, spliced in following sides two and three, and a first-set cover of “Fever,” sung by Keith John, son of the man who recorded the original, Little Willie John. Wonder wasted no time bringing Songs in the Key of Life’s themes of urban hardship and hope into the present, offering opener “Love’s in Need of Love Today” “in the spirit of Michael Brown, in the spirit of Trayvon Martin, in the spirit of every young boy that is shot by another young boy.”
A sublime version of “Village Ghetto Land” found Wonder backed only by strings. The regal, horn-highlighting “Sir Duke” brought half of the older audience, which filled most of the arena, to its feet, only to be topped by the funky “I Wish,” which sent the rest of the crowd to its feet. “Knocks Me Off My Feet” included an amusing vocal battle between Wonder and John, and “Ordinary Pain” finished with a three-female-singer assault led by Wonder’s daughter, Aisha. “Ebony Eyes” saw the band strip down to its leanest, meanest parts, and album closer “Another Star” morphed the stage into a massive, all-in party.
Complaints? Sound was fairly inconsistent, no major surprise given the sheer number of players involved. Wonder’s voice, a treasure to this day and in prime form for most of the three-hour marathon, finally proved mortal during “Summer Soft,” failing to meet the challenge of its vulnerable verses (some of which he wisely handed off to John). And most of all, a de-facto encore segment was a significant letdown, finding Wonder sampling from his greatest hits—some in short live bits, others using the actual tracks—and only completing one full song, “Superstition.” After he’d handed us the Key of Life, none of that seemed necessary.