Recollections from the Songs in the Key of Life Concert

I'm just sharing a few memories about Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life concert in Chicago on November 14, 2014. Not to torture any of you that weren't there, but rather to help bring you into the experience more deeply. It was a moment in history - probably the only chance we'll have to hear some of these songs live, presented in this way. But anyway, here are a few random things that made me laugh, cry, and clutch at my chest. If you're interested, try to really imagine these moments. They're somethin' else.

A few baseline stats:  This was a 23-piece band, plus Stevie, guest star India Arie, and a full string section (it was hard to count from where I was sitting - 10 pieces? 12?). The 23-piece band...here we go: two drummers, two percussionists, Nathan Watts on bass (who's been in Stevie's band since at least SITKOL), three keyboardists including Greg Philliganes (more on him later) as Musical Director, two guitarists, six backup vocalists including Stevie's daughter Aisha Morris for whom "Isn't She Lovely" was written (unless they needed a bigger sound for a few songs, in which case they brought out six MORE vocalists), and six horns (tenor sax, 2 alto saxes, 2 trumpet, trombone), one guest harmonica player who sometimes joined the horn section.

Yes, it was a large presentation. And here come the recollections in no particular order:

Having seen him a few times now, I'm getting used to Stevie's habit of starting his concerts by coming out and talking to the audience for a while first. I tell you though, when the band and singers hit the intro of "Love's In Need Of Love Today," it was sudden and gorgeous and carried a huge impact.

I think we were all moved by seeing Stevie sing the intense outro adlibs of "Joy Inside My Tears," full string section going behind him, and tears streaming down his face - singing his absolute heart out the whole time. There was a standing ovation when it was done, and Stevie just sat there and looked sad for a good long minute. It looked like he was letting his emotions calm down. Someone handed him a towel, and he wiped his eyes, then threw it up in the air and smiled. Man oh man.

"Tell me would you be happy - still in 2014 - in village ghetto land?"

He conducted an audience poll ("If you agree, stand up, and if you disagree, sit down, and someone will tell me how many people agree.") about whether this country has a gun problem, and whether we need to control our guns better. "If you don't like hearing about this, I don't care. I love each of you enough that I want to see you all live," at which point the band kicked into "Saturn," a duet with India Arie. Oh muh gawd. A goosebumps moment.

At the end of "Black Man," they had a tape playing of the Q&A with the kids yelling the answers, and they let the tape play out longer than it does on the album, and the kids all shout and cheer at the end...after which Stevie shouted, "And who is the 44th President of the United States?" It was so damn satisfying to hear the whole place yell "Barack Obama, a black man!" 

When he finished the SITKOL album, he kept playing like I hoped he would. He announced that they'd be doing something new, a hip-hop thing. He was going to stop being Stevie Wonder for a little while, and become DJ Tick Tick Boom. He'd call out a band member's name, and that guy would start a song from Stevie's catalog of hits. When they'd got most of the way through a chorus, he'd wave the band down, stop the song, and think of a new song to play. I thought that was great -- that he wouldn't even let the chorus finish. It created a sense of urgency, like "we're really blowing through these tunes." They played (this order isn't accurate except for the first and last songs):  "Do I Do," "My Cherie Amour," "Master Blaster," "Signed Sealed Delivered" (he said "In the key of F" and I called it), "For Once In My Life," and "Superstition," the no-brainer closer of the night. 

Greg Philliganes was the Musical Director for the band, and one of three keyboardists besides Stevie. You know who he is, right? Oh, he only played all the keyboards on Off The WallThriller, some of SITKOL, and tons of other stuff. He was MJ's live musical director for a few tours. I feel the same way I did when I saw D'Angelo and Pino Paladino and Chris "Daddy" Dave were onstage, or when I saw Prince and Maceo Parker and Candy Dulfer were in his band. 

...which only makes it funnier that I caught Greg Philliganes running - seriously, in a panic,running - across the stage to make the hit on "Superstition." For some reason he was on the other side of the stage when the drummer started, and it caught him by surprise. He sprinted, and did a Daffy Duck-style hopping skid-turn to throw his hands on the keyboard at the very last second. It was hilarious. I've been thinking that he ran so desperately because he knew there wasn't a way for Stevie to see that he wasn't in position, so Stevie was gonna hit beat one no matter what. Dude played on "Billie Jean" and now he's sprinting like his life depends on it because his bandleader is blind. Now that is comedy.

Stevie talked a bit about Chicago as his second home, where he got his start at the Regal Theatre, and how it was a Chicago DJ that flipped the 45 of "Fingertips" over, and broke the song "My Cherie Amour." Damn.

The songs didn't hit one after another; there was always a significant pause. Once or twice, Stevie was almost ready to start a song and had to find the right harmonica. He's hit a piano note, grab a harmonica and blow into it, say, "Wrong one!" do it again, say "Wrong one," then do it again and say "Yee-yuh."  :)  I'd imagine being in Stevie's band requires a unique amount of patience for things like that - but then the rewards are so rich!

Um, Aisha Morris is a babe.

He had a guest harmonica player for songs that had harmonica that overlapped his vocals, and check it out:  Stevie on harmonica, the other harmonica player, and one of the sax players front and center to do "Easy Going Evening (My Mama's Calling)" as a trio, with the rhythm section behind them. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say I probably will never see another song led by harmonica-harmonica-sax in my life.
Two guitar players, one white and one Asian. I tell ya, this whole white-guitar-player-in-an-all-

black-R&B-band phenomenon is the only reason I get out of bed some mornings. I've seen it over and over again: Smokey Robinson, Mary J. Blige, Michael Jackson, Stevie, Maxwell, and tons of others. Watch out, America. Someday I'm gonna turn up on some big R&B tour.

There was something really sweet and charming about India Arie and Stevie holding hands up above their heads during "Es Una Historia." And since India was on and off stage all night.....four different stage outfits for her.  :) They didn't change the keys of the songs for her when she dueted with Stevie -- man, she can sing low!

I don't know what to say about "As" except that they played "As," and it ended with a kind of sudden live-fade, sort of strangely. It was just sort of over all of a sudden. But oh my god. Oh, I know what to say:  the backup vocals came in on the fourth verse, and I don't know how to describe the sound or the feeling, except that it was perfect and overwhelming. Ooooohs, then aaaaahs, each one hitting me like a tidal wave. For real, the next time you listen to this song, pay special attention to those Ooohs and Aaaahs (which start at 1:45 in the studio version). They're subtle in the recording, but they were monumental in the live version. Say yes!!

"Knocks Me Off My Feet" ended with a long extended jam, and a vocal "repeat after me" session between Stevie and his male backup singer (one male out of six backups). Stevie got weirder and weirder, until the backup guy said, "Can I quit?" ...then he did the run perfectly, of course. 

I have to say, it was strange seeing such an epic, huge-scale performance with a relatively apathetic crowd. People applauded, and there were real moments of engagement between Stevie and the crowd, but I spent a lot of time thinking, "What's wrong with you people?!" The first set ended, and Stevie - still in the spotlight - was being led offstage, and the audience was already done applauding and was headed for the bathrooms and concession lines. I thought, "Why are we not all on our feet, stamping and cheering? We just saw the first half of SITKOL, and we're about to see the second half! Is this not the best night of the year for all of us??" I had the same feeling when I saw D'Angelo in this same venue last year, who was touring for the first time in 12 years, and the audience seemed like they couldn't care less. I mean, these are legendary performances, Chicago. Don't embarrass me in front of Stevie Wonder and D'Angelo, ok? We want these artists to come back!!

Stevie had an upright (Spinet?) piano specially set up for "Ebony Eyes." He went over and sang the song from stage right...again, one of the details of live production of these songs that we probably won't get to see live again.

There was some song where Stevie led the audience in female and male singalong parts, but I can't remember what song it was. All I know is that he gave the ladies their parts really clearly and repeatedly, and he gave the guys our part only once and kind of vaguely. As a music/singing nerd, I think I repped the guys pretty well, but when Stevie said "Fellas, you're falling behind here!" I could only think, "well, sing our part to us again, dude. Help!" Maybe this was "Knocks Me Off My Feet," maybe not.

Props to James Johnston for reminding me of the presentation on "If It's Magic." They projected a photo of the harpist Dorothy Ashby, who played on the original album. Stevie talked about how Dorothy's sound and approach were essential to bringing the song home, and he sang with the recording of her original performance, as a tribute to her. I totally heard new bass notes (United Center's PA system might be a little more "robust" than my home stereo) which put some of the chords in new contexts for me. Interesting!

Props to Thomas Rammer for pointing out that the "Something's Extra" songs (Saturn, Ebony Eyes, All Day Sucker, Easy Goin' Evening) were wisely added to the end of the first set, not tacked on the end like they often are on CD or streaming versions of the album...which allowed the album part of the show to end with "As" and "Another Star." Boom!

At some point, I forget which song it was, Stevie took a featured solo on a relatively new instrument called a Harpejji. It's a hammer-on-friendly instrument that combines some of the best features of the piano and the electric guitar. If anyone has any lingering doubts about Stevie Wonder being one of the more truly creative, forward-thinking artists of our time, consider this.

That might be all I have. Just tryin' to take you along for the ride, if you're still reading.

- Chris Corsale