In a performance that kicked off at 8:20 p.m. and didn’t wrap until close to midnight, Stevie Wonder, joined by a massive ensemble of roughly 50 musicians and vocalists, took a packed Erwin Center audience on a breathtaking journey remarkable for its rarely matched musical mastery and its profound spiritual reach.
It was the night before Easter and the 64-year-old R&B legend opened his show standing at the front of the stage with regally garbed guest artist India Arie praising God. “There are so many things that have happened,” he said. He talked about last week’s mass slaughter of Christians in Kenya, struggles for equal rights at home and the experience of losing his own mother. He invited the audience, who he referred to as “my special friends,” to share this time, and setting the spiritual tone for the “Songs in the Key of Life Experience” he offered the crowd, notably diverse in terms of race, gender and age, this wisdom — “when you hate someone, you’re blocking your own blessing.”
Then he sat at the keyboard and underlined his timeless message. As a soft blue light bathed the stage, a gorgeous swell of vocal harmonies swept in the intro to “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” the lead track off his classic 1976 album. The album’s first movement unfolded as an emotional whirlwind with stunning arrangements from band leader Greg Phillinganes, who played keys on the original recording. The 21-piece tour band was augmented by a locally sourced orchestra and the sonic textures were sensational, even in the notoriously echoey Erwin Center. With live recreations, the album’s full range and power was unlocked. Soul-stirring statement songs like “Village Ghetto Land” and “Pastime Paradise” soared with live strings while tracks like the largely instrumental assault “Contusion” served as reminders that Wonder also commands the funkiest dance party on the planet.
Wonder was a gracious front man generously spotlighting each of his backup singers and many of the instrumentalists. Midway through the first set he hosted a jam session, telling the audience improvisation is “our way of showing God we appreciate the blessing he gave us.” He gave a pair of local instrumentalists the opportunity to solo and Violinist Haydn Vitera unleashed a barrage of harmonic fury so devastating that Wonder was inspired to throw down his own ballistic response on harmonica.
India Arie made several spectacular appearances throughout the night, each with a corresponding costume change. She was particularly ravishing on a duet of the celestial meditation “Saturn” a track from the bonus 7 inch “A Something’s Extra” that was included with the special edition of the original LP near the end of the first set.
The band played for over an hour and a half before taking a 20 minute break then returning for an additional set of roughly the same length. Wonder was loose and in high spirits particularly toward the end of the second set when he started mixing in unexpected tracks like the Champs’ “Tequila,” Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “The Most Beautiful Girl” by country singer Charlie Rich. He joked warmly with his ensemble and mocked the “truthers” who claim he’s not actually blind.
He closed out the show calling himself DJ Tick Tick Boom and doing quick mix renditions of his hits like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” “Ribbons in the Sky” and “Superstition.” It was an ecstatic dance party outro, but it was loaded with positivity that reinforced the quieter core message of the evening “We have to love more, love more, love more.”