Thursday, October 22, 2015

Stevie Wonder - Live At The United Center (October 16th)

It has become a very popular trend of late for an artist to go out on the road and perform an entire piece of their collected work.   

One of the first we ever saw do this was Brian Wilson, who took us through the landmark "Pet Sounds" album with his outstanding new band.  (A few years later he did the same thing with the resurrected "Smile" LP, which never actually saw the time of day at the time of its originally scheduled release.  In fact, the circumstances surrounding this entire fiasco became the beginning of the "Brian In Bed" period of his life.)   

Several other artists have followed suit ... but Stevie Wonder has taken on an especially challenging project in that "Songs In The Key Of Life" was originally released as a 2-LP Set (plus bonus EP featuring four additional cuts) back in 1976, nearly forty years ago.   

Wonder has pulled out all the stops in his efforts to recreate the album in all its original glory ... at times there were as many as THIRTY musicians, background singers and dancers and musical directors up on stage with him ... including a killer, dynamite brass section as well as a mini orchestra of strings.  Early on, Stevie told us that he would not be extending this tour again as the costs to bring this to the stage the magnitude of such an undertaking in all its full-blown glory (and then travel around North America to promote it) was costing in excess of five million dollars!   

As such, we felt especially privileged to see this incredible production.  (We missed it the first time it hit town ... but this time around Frannie bought me tickets for my birthday ... and we both agreed that it ranked right up there with the very best concerts we have ever seen.)  In fact, I will go on record right here and now and say unequivocally that I can't imagine that Stevie Wonder could have performed this set of music ANY better forty years ago when it was brand new than he did Friday Night at The United Center (nor would have had the resources then to do so.)  Start to finish, it was an amazing, incredible night of music ... with Stevie in EXCELLENT voice throughout.   

The album is SO well-known at this point that the entire audience was able to follow (and sing) along every step of the way.  "Songs In The Key Of Life" debuted at #1 on The Billboard Top 200 Album Chart (it would hold the top spot for a total of fourteen weeks!) and was the second best selling album of 1977, falling just behind Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" LP.  (To give you an idea just how strong and competitive music really was in 1977, the album that eventually knocked it out of the #1 spot was The Eagles' "Hotel California" LP!!!)   

"Songs In The Key Of Life" was nominated for seven Grammys and eventually won both Album Of The Year and Male Pop Vocal of the Year.  "I Wish" also won Best Male R&B Vocal. (Stevie Wonder had dominated the Grammy Awards in years past thanks to releases like "Fulfillingness' First Finale" and "Innervisions".  When he didn't release a new album in 1976, Paul Simon, who won for Album Of The Year for "Still Crazy After All These Years", thanked Stevie Wonder as part of his acceptance speech "for not releasing an album this year.")   

Ironically, the release of the album came after a rather lengthy negotiation between Stevie and Motown Records.  Wonder had threatened to leave the music industry altogether (and, sensing this as simply a negotiation ploy, several other labels came courting.)  Motown Head Berry Gordy just didn't feel (despite an INCREDIBLE track record of three straight Top Five Albums) that Stevie could successfully pull off a two-record set.  After months of negotiating, Wonder signed a seven year deal with the label ... at the time the most lucrative deal in history ... seven albums over a seven year period with a guarantee of $37 Million and COMPLETE artistic control over all of its the content ... an unprecedented contract ... and then, after numerous delays along the way, he finally released his masterpiece in late September of 1976.  (When all was said and done, even Berry Gordy had to admit that Motown Records had made a HELL of a deal in resigning their star performer back to the label.)  The album premiered at #1 on The Billboard Album Charts, only the third record in history to do so. (It was also the first two-record set ... and the first album by an American Artist ... and the first album by a Black Artist)  To date it has sold approximately 28 million copies.  (Stevie joked in concert that "you bought the album ... you bought the CD ... you bought the 8-track ...") and we sure did.  I've personally owned this collection on vinyl, cassette and CD and have never grown tired of it!  

If it took 30+ musicians to bring this magic to life on stage, it's a true testament to the reportedly 130 musicians who recorded it in the studio with Stevie Wonder nearly forty years ago!  (Another point strongly stressed by Stevie on stage Friday Night was the importance of preserving music in schools ... pointing out that EVERY note played that evening would be played by REAL musicians on REAL instruments.  While Wonder can get a bit preachy at time, THIS message came through loud and clear ... and as one of the strongest examples of this or any other generation of pure, raw musical talent, every word he spoke touched us deeply in the heart, especially with having a daughter so intimately involved with the arts.)   

One of the stand-out performances was "Sir Duke" (it reminded me a lot of the impact currently being experienced by the Bruno Mars / Mark Ronson hit "Uptown Funk" today ... music doesn't get any more infectious than this! ... and I guess to a degree "Sir Duke" was the "Uptown Funk" of its day. Recorded nearly forty years ago it still sounds every bit as fresh, exciting and vibrant today.) Also receiving a tremendous reception was "Isn't She Lovely" which, although never officially released as a single, probably has garnered as much airplay as ANY other Stevie Wonder record ever released.   

Start to finish, it's an incredible album ... in 2005 Rolling Stone Magazine ranked it as the 57th Greatest Album in History.  The album (with its four bonus tracks) runs just under two hours when played in its entirety.  After about a twenty minute late start (traffic was HORRENDOUS getting near The United Center), Stevie performed Sides One and Two (along with a couple of the EP bonus tracks) before taking a brief intermission, after which time he completed Sides Three and Four and the other bonus tracks.  In both sets he did some extended special features spotlighting all of his incredible background singers, an unbelievable set on harmonica and saxophone built around the track "Easy Goin' Evening" (which morphed into several other songs, including, at one point, "The Star Spangled Banner") as well as a lengthy tribute to Chicago Blues featuring songs by Jimmy Reed and Curtis Mayfield.  And then, to top things off, after telling the crowd that they had to wrap things up by 11:00 (by which time it was already about twenty minutes PAST that deadline), he went on to perform another 40-minute hits medley that included another dozen Stevie Wonder classics, topped off by a full-length version of "Superstition" to end the night.  (Several people got up and left when Stevie announced he had to wrap things up ... and, as such, missed some GREAT music in the process.) And let me tell you ... this Stevie Wonder Mega-Mix (with Stevie performing as DJ Ching Ching Boom), coming 3 1/2 hours into the set, packed every bit as much energy as anything we experienced all night.  We waited to the very end ... FOUR HOURS from beginning to end ... before heading out to the parking lot and the ensuing traffic jam to follow.   

I am SO glad we made it to this show.  If ever there is a concert that deserves to be videotaped and marketed to the public, THIS is it.  I'd buy it in a heartbeat, just to be able to watch it again and again.   

We found this "Songs In The Key Of Life" jukebox online, which features every track on the LP.  
It makes for a great refresher course if you haven't heard this in awhile.  
Prepare yourself to be blown away all over again ... trust me!  (kk) 
Kent Kotal 
Forgotten Hits  

I've got to say that The United Center looked absolutely amazing as we were pulling in ... all kinds of Stevie light up marquees ... absolutely beautiful (if not a photographer's best friend!!!)

Evolution of a Song:
It first gained life as the album track "Pastime Paradise" on Stevie Wonder's "Songs In The Key Of Life" album.

It was then revamped as "Gangsta's Paradise" by Coolio in the film "Dangerous Minds", and went all the way to #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 Pop Singles Chart.

And then, leave it to Weird Al Yankovic to revitalize it again as "Amish Paradise" (complete with Coolio hair dreds!!!)  Gotta be one of his funniest videos ever!