There’s no getting around it: Stevie Wonder is a goofball. “My name is DJ Tick-Tick Boom,” the 65-year-old living legend explained to his audience, a stadium full of fans, old and new, from children to the elderly. “What’s my name?” The man had no intention of moving on until we acknowledged his stage name.
Wonder’s November 17 performance at John Paul Jones Arena, clocking in at a marathon four hours, was a masterclass in career stamina. I marveled at the ease with which he sang and played, all the raw talent he must have displayed at his first Motown audition still intact, yet refined over decades of performing.
Wonder (born Stevland Hardaway Judkins) is known for his inventive, virtuosic influence on a wide spectrum of genres–Motown, soul, funk, R&B, and more–both as a songwriter and an instrumentalist. His sonic landscape is vast, yet trademark elements include the harmonica (see “Fingertips”) and synthesizer (“Superstition”). In 2008, Wonder received the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for excellence in popular music, an award granted in later years to such icons as Paul McCartney, Carole King and Billy Joel.
Boasting a bottomless repertoire, Stevie could have taken the show any number of directions. Yet he chose to explore just one record, both celebrating and reinventing it at the same time. And so, track by track, Stevie took us through his 1976 classic album, Songs in the Key of Life. Released when he was 26, the album is actually his eighteenth out of twenty-six, to date. On Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, the record comes in at number 57, containing hits such as “Isn’t She Lovely,” “I Wish,” and “Sir Duke.”
As I hoped and expected, his JPJ show featured a stellar band and incredible “back-up” singers, though it almost seems unfair to describe them as such. A highlight of the concert was a segment in which each singer crooned, purred and belted their way through a specially selected non-Stevie tune, from Gershwin’s “Summertime” to Etta James’s “At Last.” Wonder varied his set by singing various songs as duets with his backup singers. Furthermore, he shared the stage with a Charlottesville-based orchestra and a choir including members of UVA’s Black Voices Gospel Choir.
Significantly, Wonder powered through all 21 tracks from the original SKL record, including those with a more pointed message. In “Village Ghetto Land,” Stevie’s ironically happy-go-lucky narration guides a tour through the hellish conditions of urban poverty and corruption: “Children play with rusted cars / sores cover their hands / Politicians laugh and drink / drunk to all demands.” “Black Man” is a defiant call for equality amongst all people: ”But we all must be given / The liberty that we defend / For with justice / not for all men / History will repeat again;” concluding with a reverberating chorus naming the accomplishments of minorities in American history. His inclusion of these songs seems to represent a lasting commitment to ensuring his songs mean something to his audience, that they carry a deeper significance than a mere list of “greatest hits.”
Even after half a century of fame, Stevie Wonder has retained both his musical talent and gift of passionately engaging an audience; I never doubted that he was truly present and invested in the show–just one out of hundreds or thousands in his career. But for the audience, it was the chance of a lifetime to see genius, in goofball form, before our eyes.
– Caroline Secrest, Probationary Writer