Wonder delights in concert with timeless ‘Songs in the Key of Life’

Stevie Wonder on keyboard at the Songs in the  Key of Life, March 29.
Stevie Wonder on keyboard at the Songs in the Key of Life, March 29.

Steve Wonder’s masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life proved every bit worthy of a tour some 39 years after its release at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Sunday, March 29. It wasn’t on my bucket list, but if I had one, Sunday’s experience would easily qualify for check-off status.

Wonder pretty much stuck to the iconic album’s original song order during the Twin Cities’ tour stop, his first time performing here since 1988. The show kicked off about 20 minutes after the 8 pm scheduled start, and concluded with a standing ovation around midnight. It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving unsatisfied.

Wonder began with the stirring “Love’s In Need of Love Today” and “Have A Talk With God,” which featured R&B singer-songwriter India.Arie, who was just a year old when ‘Songs’ was released. His later second duet with her on “Saturn” was excellent, as well — she came on stage wearing a striped gown with a yellow train that seemingly matched the song’s lyrics of a futuristic utopian society. When he got to his better known songs, such as “Sir Duke” and “I Wish,” everybody was up on their feet.

India.Arie joined Wonder on stage for several elections

Wonder and his 20-plus musicians and backup singers also did “a little jam session” featuring Nathan Watts on bass and Greg Phillinganes on keyboard, both of whom were among the 130 musicians who played on the original recording. “We love to improvise…whether it’s jazz, hip hop, country, whatever. We love to jam,” Wonder proudly exclaimed.

The second half after intermission was equally good, with “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Joy Inside My Tears,” “Black Man,” and a second medley featuring India.Arie in between. Wonder also paid tribute to the late Dorothy Ashby, who played the harp on “If It’s Magic,” by playing the original recording while he sang and played harmonica on stage. “As,” my personal favorite, was next, with “Another Star” closing the set.

Songs in the Key of Life was Wonder’s first double album and his first recording since he signed a new seven-year record deal that included first-ever full artistic control. The album debuted at number one in both the U.S. and Canada in the fall of 1976, and was later named by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

20-plus musicians joined Wonder on stage at the Target Center, March 29.
20-plus musicians joined Wonder on stage at the Target Center, March 29.

I wasn’t a big Wonder fan growing up but Talking Book, Wonder’s 15th album, prompted me to buy a bootleg version of the album on cassette in the summer of 1973. Later that year, I added a Wonder trilogy — ‘Book,’ Innervisions, and Music of My Mind to my growing record collection as a college freshman. Then came ‘Songs’ during my senior year, which I bought along with Earth, Wind and Fire’s Spirit. Let’s just say that by Monday, I still hadn’t cracked the cellophane seal on EWF — I “binge-listened” to Wonder the entire weekend. Nearly four decades later, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend my first Stevie Wonder concert.

Songs in the Key of Life is rich in topics and emotions. It’s in part political (“Village Ghetto Land”), autobiographical (“Isn’t She Lovely,” “I Wish,” “Joy Inside My Tears”), idealistic (“Saturn”) and religious (“Have a Talk With God,” “Past-time Paradise”). On Sunday, Wonder played all these and more, virtually staying on script. As the album unfolded live, I was quietly transported back to my old dorm room like it was my first time hearing it.

The only disappointment was “Ordinary Pain,” a “he said, she-said” song telling two sides of a failed relationship. It was way too loud inside the big box downtown arena, causing me pain. Plus, the three backup singers didn’t quite do the late Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams, who sang the original “she” parts, justice.

Telina Fleming of Fridley and Eric Bronson prior to the show
Telina Fleming of Fridley and Eric Bronson prior to the show

The MSR talked to several fans before and after the concert, and during intermission: “It’s a dream come true,” admitted Telina Fleming of Fridley, who also was attending her first Stevie Wonder concert.

“We’re excited. That’s why we got here early,” added Andrea Rice of Minneapolis. Her husband Zachary recalled, “I’ve seen him in 1967 with [my] mom and dad in a theatre in Washington, D.C.  I was 10 [or] 11 years old.  He was Little Stevie Wonder then.”

“This was a birthday gift from my husband,” noted Angela Jackson of Woodbury. “He’s probably my all-time favorite artist,” added her husband Steve.

Robin Gonzales said  attending Sunday’s concert is now a check off her bucket list. Her husband, Rev. Michael Gonzales said he hoped the concert would help “bring back the memories of the things you were doing” back then.

Even after over two hours on stage, Wonder, who will turn 65 this May, still seemed spry and playful, chiding the near-sellout crowd that if they wanted him to stay, they had to call him “DJ Tick Tick Boom.” The crowd played along, which sent Wonder into mix mode with a teasing sampling of other hits: “Part Time Lover,” “Living For The City,” “Higher Ground” and “Do I Do,” before he finally broke out with “Superstition” to exit the stage, leaving the audience hoping against hope that he might do a second encore.

Janet Slack and her daughter Kendra Kaywood during intermission
Janet Slack and her daughter Kendra Kaywood during intermission

Janet Slack and her daughter Kendra Kaywood thoroughly enjoyed the concert — it was Kaywood’s birthday, and both mother and daughter rarely sat throughout Wonder’s show. “I was raised on (vinyl) records and [‘Songs’] was always played,” recalled Kaywood during the intermission, adding that it was special to share the evening with her mother. “I broke my phone from clapping so hard,” admitted Kaywood, smiling.

“Stevie Wonder is iconic and I’m glad I got to see him in my lifetime,” added Sandy Johnson from Minneapolis.

Wonder promised he’d try to come back, perhaps at Christmastime, to do a couple of shows in the Twin Cities. Whether he does or not, he left those in attendance Sunday – including this reporter — with lasting memories.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.

Before Wonder’s show at the Target Center, he stopped by New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in North Minneapolis (and the Wedge Co-op in South Minneapolis), where he wowed the congregation with a song.  See video footage of his visit to New Salem here. Find more concert photos in our photo gallery below: