Performing in an arena like the Target Center can be a tough challenge for an artist to overcome. With all of that empty open space lingering between the stage and the sloping tiers of seats, it can be a downright Herculean task to convey any kind of authentic human emotion to the sea of people in front of you.
Stevie Wonder makes that kind of connection between his fans, his band, and his heart look effortless.
At the risk of sounding trite, it was hard not to feel deeply and profoundly touched watching Stevie Wonder and his enormous backing band perform. Like the title of his celebrated album suggests, Wonder eloquently guided us through all the Keys of Life and the colors of our emotions, flipping through our feelings like a rolodex and drawing out joy, longing, loneliness, sweetness, silliness, and love—so much love.
“Here’s the beautiful thing about this night: We forever will be able to say that we spent this time together,” Wonder said, taking the stage flanked by the Grammy-winning soul artist India.Arie.
Before he even sat down at his keyboards for the first time, Wonder delivered a heartfelt opening speech that held the audience rapt.
“Before we start this first song, I want to say this: and keeping it very real, it came to me in the spirit. What came to me to say to all of you was, that anyone that hates anyone for any reason, whether it be the color of their skin or their relationship to religion or whatever, what you’re doing is blocking your blessing. You’re blocking your family’s blessing, you’re blocking the world’s blessing.”
“I hope that you will put love in your heart,” he continued.” And if you love God, or Allah, or whatever religion you are, that you will take hate out of it, and the world will be so much greater. I really, really believe that. If you put love in there and took hate out, then the people who are blind will be able to see, the people who are deaf will be able to hear. We will see miracles unfold.”
And with that Stevie was ours and we were his, and the gate that separates the audience from the performer was unlocked, unlatched, and swung open. For the next three and a half hours the crowd clapped and swayed, danced and sang, and Wonder kept us laughing and crying up until the bitter end.
When several of Minnesota’s most prominent African-American lawmakers–Senator Bobby Joe Champion, Representative Rena Moran, Senator Jeff Haydon—came on stage to read a proclamation honoring Wonder’s art and philanthropy, it felt like a no-brainer. And when and Metropolitan Council member (and husband of Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges) Gary Cunningham stepped up to proclaim it Stevie Wonder Day in Minneapolis, the audience hardly seemed surprised. Of course it’s Stevie Wonder Day! How else to commemorate an evening spent with such a sincere, joyful, and relentlessly positive presence?
As was to be expected, Wonder spent the majority of the evening taking us on a jubilant parade through his Songs in the Key of Life album, including the bonus EP, A Something’s Extra, that was included with the album’s release in 1976. But what couldn’t have been predicted was just how engaging, poignant, and downright hilarious Wonder can be—and just how much improvisation he weaves in to the typically well-oiled mechanics of an arena show.
From simple alterations like accenting the line, “Some folks say that we should be glad for what we have / tell me would you be happy—still, in 2015—living in village ghetto land?” to long expositions on the joys of jamming with his bandmates and meaning behind his song “If It’s Magic” (spoiler alert: it’s love), Wonder was masterful with his off-the-cuff banter and storytelling. Even a moment when he belched into the microphone was somehow endearing.
None of that would have mattered nearly as much if the performances weren’t so rock-solid. Backed by upwards of 40 people, including a 10-piece “Minneapolis string section,” the musicians worked together to create deep, deep grooves and extended jams. “Sir Duke” back-to-back with “I Wish” was an obvious highlight, as was an improvised jam after “Knocks Me Off My Feet” that kept even the hired guns in the string section on their toes.
And Stevie Wonder himself was on point, shifting between soulful crooning, hard-bopping speak-singing and all-out wailing, meanwhile working his Clavinet and grand piano nimbly. He also took an opportunity to show off his skills on the hybrid harpejji, a combination guitar and keyboard that showed off Wonder’s seemingly innate musicality.
After telling the haters of the world to “get their shit together,” Wonder brought it all home with a medley that included Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” into the Champs’ “Tequila” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and promised to come back for a pair of dates around Christmastime before pummeling the night’s closer, “Superstition.”
But for a full understanding of Stevie Wonder’s show in Minneapolis, one only need to refer to his exchange with the audience as he closed Songs in the Key of Life:
“Are you happy?”
“Are you happy?”
“Are you happy?”
“We did it!”
Love’s in Need of Love Today
Have a Talk with God (with India.Arie)
Village Ghetto Land
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Saturn (with India.Arie)
Isn’t She Lovely
Joy Inside My Tears
All Day Sucker
Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
Ngiceulela—Es Una Historia—I Am Singing (with India.Arie)
People Get Ready (Curtis Mayfield cover) into Tequila (The Champs) into The Way You Make Me Feel (Michael Jackson)
If It’s Magic
DJing as DJ Tick Tick Boom, feat. “Children’s Story” by Slick Rick
All I Do