(Above: Stevie Wonder performs “Never Can Say Goodbye” the day after Michael Jackson’s death. Wonder dedicated his performance at Starlight Theater to Jackson.)
By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Stevie Wonder walked on stage at Starlight Theatre on Friday night with zero fanfare and cut to the heart of the night before playing a single note.
It took Wonder a half hour to get the nearly sold-out crowd on its feet. Once “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” finally did the trick, Wonder ensured they stayed up by playing the signature bassline to “Billie Jean.” With no vocal support from the stage, Wonder let the crowd sing the entire song.
The audience did a good job at impromptu karoke the first time around, but was less successful in carrying “I Can’t Help It.” Wonder has good reason to be proud of the song he wrote for Jackson that ended up on his “Off the Wall” album, but few in the audience were familiar with the number.
The crowd did better on Wonder’s classic material. “All I Do,” “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City” all drew big responses.
Later in the set, Wonder led the band through a jam with his vocoder. Safe behind the distortion of this electronic vocal altering device, Wonder was surprisingly honest.
“Last night and today I was in so much pain,” Wonder said, “but I knew if I played for you I would play a little better.”
Still employing the vocoder, Wonder segued into the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” The poignant moment was made even more mournful by the vocal alteration and Wonder’s decision to let a male backing singer take the final verse. Emotions built as Wonder led the crowd through the chorus again and again, turning the song into a remembrance and a celebration.
Wonder was backed by a 14-piece band that included four backing vocalists – including his daughter Aisha Morris – two percussionists, keyboard players and guitarist and a rhythm and horn section.
Given his orchestrations on record, it was no surprise the band arrangements were sublime. The ensemble knew the right moments to back off and give Wonder the spotlight and the right time to come in and kick the performance up a notch. As usual, the sound at Starlight was great.
After the South American syncopation of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” Wonder paused for a moment behind the keyboard. Playing a gorgeous piece of music, he started humming and mumbling until the words congealed into stream-of-consciousness thoughts about Jackson being “in the arms of God.” The energy from this moving melody was poured into an amazing reading of “You and I” that found Wonder showing of his vocal range and its resilience to time and age.
Randomness struck again in the last 30 minutes of the night when Wonder had his sound man play Jamie Foxx and T-Pain’s “Blame It (On the Alcohol)” over the PA while he rested his throat and the band hydrated. That was followed by a jazz number performed by Wonder’s daughter. The song was pleasant, but not what folks came to hear.
Two other shortcomings also bear mention. The only time Wonder played harmonica was during a cover of Chick Corea’s “Spain.” His solo brief solo there was both a tease and a crime. Also, Wonder’s ‘60s catalog was completely ignored. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” from 1970 was as far back as Wonder went for the night, which meant “Uptight,” “Hey Love,” “My Cherie Amor” and others were forgotten.
Wonder ended the night with the murderer’s row of “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” “Sir Duke,” “Superstition” and “As” that more than erased any minor missteps. As the final notes of “As” died out, the strains of “ABC” faded in. The Jackson 5 number kicked off a pre-recorded medley of Wonder’s favorite Jackson moments.
As the tape played, everyone remained onstage dancing, singing along and brushing away stray tears. Two hours and 20 minutes after taking the stage, Wonder and his band filed slowly offstage as “Man in the Mirror” played. There was no encore, but there was nothing left to say.
Setlist: Love’s In Need of Love Today, Going to Kansas City> Bird of Beauty> As If You Read My Mind> Master Blaster (Jammin’), Billie Jean, Did I Hear You Say You Love Me> All I Do, I Can’t Help It, Vocoder Jam> Never Can Say Goodbye > Higher Ground, Spain> Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing, Improvised MJ tribute> You and I, Living For the City, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Blame It (On the Alcohol) (Jamie Foxx and T-Pain song played over PA), I’m Going to Laugh You Right Out of My Life (Aisha Morris, lead vocals), Sir Duke> Superstition, As, Michael Jackson medley (played over PA)
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