The reviews are coming in.
Stevie’s Songs In The Key of Life tour is proving to be as powerful and audience-pleasing as the original recorded work, released in 1976 and spread over two vinyl LPs and a four-track EP. “The music still resonates,” declared Nekesa Mumbi Moody of Associated Press, who called the opening night at New York’s Madison Square Garden “an electrifying concert,” with the crowd roaring and standing on its feet in approval.
There are unusual moments of time travel, too. “Isn’t She Lovely,” the first track of the set’s second LP, features a cameo appearance by Stevie’s baby daughter, Aisha Morris. On the road in 2014, she makes another appearance: as a grown-up, singing in her father’s band (Aisha is now 39).
“Isn’t She Lovely” is the eleventh song of the 21-track album, and it perfectly captures Stevie’s spirit of optimism and exuberance, a hallmark of so much of his music. And if we once again become students of Wonder, his work on Songs In The Key Of Life merits comparison with two other great musicians and songwriters of the 20th century, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
Optimism was McCartney’s preference during the Beatles’ epochal years, while Lennon leaned towards cold-eyed realism. Those often-contradictory forces, separately and together, can be heard in Songs In The Key Of Life. The upbeat ambience of “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing” recalls McCartney (“But with a happy song to sing/It never seems as bad”); the drama of “Saturn” is suffused with a perspective similar to that of Lennon (“Truth or happiness just can’t be bought – or sold/Tell me why are you people so cold”).
Lennon and McCartney had record producer George Martin to give form to their imaginations. On Songs In The Key Of Life, which Stevie produced, arranged, wrote and composed himself, he has the Yamaha Electrone Polyphonic Synthesizer GX10. Its extraordinary capabilities are the bedrock of the album, and especially on “Black Man” and “Another Star,” which both run to eight minutes-plus. The Latin rhythms of the latter are highly percussive, flavoured by the guitar dexterity (and background vocals) of George Benson, and brought to a climax by the incendiary flute solo of Bobbi Humphrey. On “Black Man” – more politically-charged than any late-period Lennon song – Stevie’s bandmates raise the roof with pounding brass riffs alongside his keyboard wizardry, while the voices from a Harlem theatrical group canonise the men and women of colour who helped shape America. (When Songs In The Key Of Life was released in ’76, it was the 200th anniversary of the country’s independence.) Storied New York radio DJ Gary Byrd co-wrote “Black Man,” as he did “Village Ghetto Land.”
Perhaps the album’s most powerful track is “As,” an anthem about constancy which could easily be named “Always,” for the sweeping chorus which runs in tandem with Stevie’s almighty vocal performance and the multiple tracking of background singer Mary Lee Whitney. Jazz improvisations add extra impetus, notably those of keyboard guest Herbie Hancock, while Stevie’s growling attack of a mid-song verse is reminiscent of “Living For The City.”
The depth of the album’s second half is apparent in “If It’s Magic,” when Wonder sings a guileless song of love – with one of his most elegant lyrics – and adds only the delicate harp of the late Dorothy Ashby. This is Stevie’s inner romantic, for all to hear. (On his current tour, he performs “If It’s Magic” accompanied only by a recording of Ashby’s original track.) Another hymn is “Joy Inside My Tears,” but it’s dark, mournful, almost funereal. Wonder can be guilty of excess saccharine on some of his ballads, but not on this.
He is rather deliberate on “Ebony Eyes,” with its chirpy melody and bright lyric (“She’s the sunflower of nature’s seeds”). Did Stevie know that “Ebony And Ivory” lay in his future when composing this?
The cynicism of “All Day Sucker” – this, too, could be a Lennon lyric – is quite a contrast to “Ebony Eyes,” offset by the fierce fretwork of guitarists Ben Bridges, Mike Sembello and Snuffy Walden. They set this “Day” on fire, reinforcing the riffs, improvising the melodies, burning down the house. In stark contrast is the next and final track on Songs In The Key Of Life, a subtle instrumental entitled “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call),” echoing with Wonder’s harmonica and a gentle coda.
In concert, such an “Easy Goin’ Evening” would defy expectations of a smashing finale, of the crowd’s wish to hail the ambitions of the night and the charisma of its star. And so Stevie closes his show with “Superstition,” to define his talent as much as any single song in the key of his life.
On Nov. 24 at the White House, Stevie Wonder is due to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. This sightless man of extraordinary gifts from Detroit has proved that freedom comes in many forms, “until the day is night and night becomes the day.” Always, Stevie, always.
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