Live Review: Stevie Wonder Takes Us to Church at Oracle Arena

Stevie Wonder
With India Arie
Friday, December 5, 2014

There’s an old tale in my family: Uncle Benny claims that when he was a kid growing up in Saginaw, Michigan, he played marbles with a young Stevie Wonder and would always beat him because he was blind. That doesn’t seem fair, and makes my uncle seem like a lousy playmate. While I suppose that could have happened, none of us believed what sounded like a tall tale. After all, Wonder was born there in 1950 before he and his mother moved to Detroit when he was about five years old. But I think the point is, who can blame Uncle Benny for wanting to claim to have been near Wonder’s fame and greatness?

[jump] Friday night’s Songs In The Key of Life performance at Oakland’s Oracle Arena would be the last stop on a tour that would further solidify Wonder’s status as a national treasure. In a career spanning more than 50 years, he’s considered by most as a musical genius and an integral thread in the fabric of American culture and history. His 1976 Motown masterpiece double-album that serves as the bookend of a series of albums referred to as his classic period is critically acclaimed, earned him four Grammys, and produced chart-topping songs that have become synonymous with his live repertoire. 

“Look how long his hair is,” commented a woman seated in a row behind me. Braids cascaded more than halfway down Wonder’s back. At 64, it may be compensatory for what’s lacking on top of his head. Anticipation heightened, he’d finally make his way on stage nearly an hour late, accompanied by some 30 musicians, including a string arrangement, percussionists, horn section, backup singers (including his daughter Aisha), and original collaborators Nathan Watts on bass and Gregory Phillinganes on keyboards. 

Meanwhile, protests in Oakland continued for another night of marches and public transit shutdowns. This time the West Oakland BART station was as far as you could go headed in the San Francisco direction from the East Bay. The frustration of two recent high-profile grand jury decisions was too much to bear. First, no charges in Ferguson in the case of Michael Brown’s shooting death by police officer Darren Wilson; then, only days later, a similar outcome when no charges are filed in the police choking death (caught on video) of Eric Garner in New York City. Both were unarmed black men.

I’m sure many people were thinking, “What’s Stevie gonna say?” He lived the Civil Rights movement, pretty much helped write the soundtrack, and gave hope and guidance in its aftermath. His rhymes on “race relation, segregation, exploitation, mutilation” as he preaches on “Pastime Paradise” and elsewhere on this 38-year-old album come off as both eerily prophetic and timely, or could be seen as somber commentary on the state of the social injustice he’s always spoken out against and the lack of progress that’s been made. 

Early on he’d touch on the recent unrest, even mentioning the instability in the Middle East, noting that “Things are happening every day.” By the night’s end he’d embolden his tone by saying, “Right now is some bullshit,” referring to the undeniable killings of black men at the hands of police and the ensuing decisions.

“Killing plagues the citizens, unless they own police,” are the original lines he sang from “Village Ghetto Land,” a song which he amend to add, “even in 2014.” As he stood in front of his Hohner clavinet D6, with a bejeweled but similar-looking instrument stacked underneath, I noticed his body sort of trembled and convulsed during the more intricate vocal arrangements, but he nailed every note. Adept at drums, harmonica, piano, a multitude of synthesizers, keyboards and bass, his most outstanding musical instrument has always been his voice itself — a fine example of how one disability (blindness) can lead to an incredible gift of divine ability.

During the encore set, presented by a silly, but fun alter ego (he would constantly call out to the audience “What’s my name?” to which they responded, “DJ Chick Chick Boom!” after he introduced himself) he reminded us that no one is beyond the law and that not only do black lives matter; he chose to riff on the popular hashtag by including white, brown, yellow, and red lives. “Every life matters,” he said before pleasing the crowd with “Living for the City,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” “My Cherie Amour,” and “Superstition.” 

Earlier, Oakland native Sheila E. received a standing ovation when she was brought out to drum on the jazz-fusion instrumental “Contusion.” I was still settling into the whole experience for the first few songs of the night, but by this time it began to sink in that I was watching some of the most beautiful compositions written and recorded in soul, jazz, gospel, rhythm, and blues, all presented live. A tingle crawled over my body and when the song transitioned into “Sir Duke,” the crowd of thousands became extra-spirited and lifted onto their feet from their chairs. “Music is a world within itself…”

Wonder shared his talents with passion and conviction, while he took the audience to a higher level. He interspersed anecdotes and explained this album was reflective of his experience in Detroit, but perhaps more profoundly, his experience in life. 

His “very special guest,” India Arie, joined on numbers like “Ngiculela — Es Una Historia, I Am Singing” and the spiritual “Have a Talk with God” — a song that encourages dialogue with higher power in moments of despair.

Growing up in Saginaw, some of my first exposure to music was through going to church. Depending on what time you went on Sunday, you’d either get mass in Spanish with musical interludes from people with acoustic guitars, upright bass, and maracas, or you’d get the more exciting choir; armed with tambourines, angelic, but somehow assertive voices, all led by a woman on piano named Damona. Oblivious to any sermon, I’d sit and wait for these interludes by several shades of brown people all seeming content under one steeple to sing, praise, and worship. 
Stevie Wonder included us all as part of his family that night and said so. Music, to me, is the most tangible way of relating to any higher power. The inexplicable feeling of connection took me back to a child-like state of joy, happy to simply feel the music. Indeed, like the song says — you could feel it all over.  

 

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