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Concert Reviews:
Stevie's homecoming is Wonder-ful at the Palace

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Friday, November 21, 2014

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AUBURN HILLS -- Hearing Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" in its recorded form is always a sublime experience.

Hearing -- and seeing -- it recreated live on stage, with the care Wonder is taking with it during his 10-city Songs in the Key of Life Performance Tour, is nearly indescribable.

Wonder brought the opulent musical production "home" on Thursday night, Nov. 20, to the Palace of Auburn Hills, just down the road from his birthplace of Saginaw and just north of the Detroit city streets he inhabited while growing from Little Stevie Wonder into one of the most impressive talents first at Motown and then in world of music in general. Saying "hi to all my people, all my family, all my friends, ex-girlfriends..." before he even played a note of music, Wonder reminded the nearly sold-out Palace crowd that, "This is my hometown area...I'm a little, like, not nervous. I'm excited!"

It was Wonder who gave his fans plenty to be excited about, however, with the jaw-dropping recitation of his Grammy Award-winning 1976 soul-pop masterpiece in its entirety, leading a small orchestra -- 43 musicians in its full complement, directed by Detroit native Greg Phillinganes -- through the album's 22 songs the way they were meant to sound, with enough horns, strings, backing vocalists and other instruments to turn out everything from the smooth melodicism of "Love's In Need of Love Today," "Summer Soft," "Knocks Me Off My Feet" and "All Day Sucker" to the frenetic fury of "Black Man" and the soaring majesty of "Isn't She Lovely" (with a fresh new string arrangement) and "Another Star."

The joy of the three-hour-plus show -- which started an hour and 15 minutes later than its announced 8 p.m. time due to Thursday's challenging road condition and stretched well past midnight -- was a combination of hearing exceptional songs that aren't quite on Wonder's A-list in the same way as hits such as "Sir Duke" and "I Wish," and then hearing them performed so accurately and authoritatively. Wonder sang "Village Ghetto Land," for instance, accompanied solely by a 10-piece string section and delivered "If It`s Magic" to the original harp track played by the late Dorothy Ashby. Special guest India Arie sang with Wonder on four of the songs, sporting a different outfit each time, while Wonder and backup singer Keith John -- son of the late Detroit legend Little Willie John -- engaged in a playful game of vocal one-upsmanship at the end of "Knocks Me Off My Feet," which in turn led to an improvised onstage song construction highlighting most of the rhythm section, particularly bassist Nathan Watts, another Detroit native.

Wonder, who mixed wisecracks with pointed political and philosophical comments about love, racism and gun violence throughout the show, introduced "Isn't She Lovely" with the story of how it was inspired by his first daughter, Aisha -- another of the ensemble's backup singers. He also deftly handled the instrumentals "Contusion" and "Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)" and slipped a bit of Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" into "Ngiculela." And Wonder broke down after a powerful rendition of "Joy Inside My Tears," overwhelmed by the resonance of performing not just the song but the entire "Songs..." as a piece in an area that means so much to him.

As he said at one point of the show, "They say people don't appreciate you in your home town, but that hasn't been true for me. I have truly been given love from you all my life."

Wonder wasn't done once "Songs..." was finished, however. "Y'all want to hang out a little bit more?" he asked -- as if he needed to -- before posing as DJ Tick Tick Boom as he led the group through portions of "Do I Do," "All I Do," "For Once In My Life" and "Master Blaster (Jammin')" and fuller versions of the audience singalong "My Cherie Amour" and "Superstition." Best of all, Wonder dangled the possibility of a quick return to the metro area; mentioning the House of Toys benefit he plays every year in Los Angeles, Wonder said that "it would be really nice to come back and do it for Detroit" if someone would underwrite the concert."

"Can we do it again? Can we fill up this Palace again?" Wonder asked. A rhetorical question if there ever was one.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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