Live Nation presents
O2 Arena London
October 1 , 2008
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
The sheer size of the 02 venue, which rests inside of what was, in its formerly ill-fated life, the Millennium Dome, simply has to be experienced to be appreciated. Having seen Stevie Wonder perform live at Philadelphia’s Spectrum once upon a time, I thought I was prepared for large scale venues, but, unless memory fails me, O2 definitely dwarfs the other. Nevertheless, on the final of Wonder’s four London engagements, the house was packed to the rafters with largely enthusiastic fans of his music.
Ever since Stevie Wonder turned twenty-one in 1971, he has been producing and writing his own music. His most potently effecting and lasting impact on both the Black American music tradition and popular music, particularly soul and funk first occurred via his album, Talking Book (1972), which launched ‘Superstition’ into the national and global consciousness along with heartfelt ballads like ‘You and I’ and ‘I Believe When I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever.’ The more funky elements of Talking Book were clearly influenced by Billy Preston’s trailblazing keyboard work on his 1972 hit ‘Outa Space’, though it was Wonder who popularised the clavinet keyboard that Preston had used, with its guitar like twang. The gritty realism of Wonder’s lyrics and driving rhythms may not have happened without the inspirational funk grooves of James Brown to begin with, but Wonder has always had his own unique style.
Despite the fact that many of Wonder’s most beloved songs were recorded in the 1970’s while he was in the process of transforming himself from the harmonica playing Little Stevie Wonder (he still plays a mean harmonica) of his former, boyhood days in the 1960’s to the intermittently introspective, undeniably popular song-writer and soul musician he became, he still enjoys enduring mega stardom today. It’s no wonder that Wonder is still so popular, for since winning his first Grammy in 1973 for the album Innervisions, which was also the first ever won by a black musician for Best Album, and winning Best Album for this next two albums as well, culminating with an award in 1976 for Songs in the Key of Life, he has garnered twenty-one more of these awards along with countless others, making his career, which started back in 1962 when he was only twelve, a singularly successful one which has produced much of the music which features in the soundtracks of an endless number of lives around the globe.
Along the walkway to the O2 itself, inside of the vast complex, one has the sensation of travelling through the duty free of an airport, albeit, one with exaggeratedly high ceilings. Strings of bustling restaurants with familiar sounding high street names like Nando’s and Starbucks line the thoroughfare, along with pubs and bars along the same lines, one after the other, as though their multiple presences helps validate the vast domed space. A tall escalator, surrounded by blue and yellow neon snakes its way up to the neo-Egyptian entranceway of a VUE cinema, as you follow the arrows to O2, under many huge, lighted Stevie Wonder signs, designed to heighten the sense of anticipation among the crowd making their way to the show.
Once you find the venue itself and manage to locate your seat among the vast sea of possibilities inside, your senses are assaulted by endlessly flashing lights along the upper tier of O2 announcing the pending arrivals of Boyzone, Strictly Come Dancing, and Elton John. None of this matters because you have come to see Stevie Wonder.
Cheers ensue as the band begins to people the stage. A portly bass player takes his place centre-stage, directly behind a vacant seat poised between a piano and an electric keyboard up front, resting his bass on his broad belly as two guitarists align themselves on either side of him. These pivotal players are joined by a female keyboardist, a saxophonist and trumpet player, three drummers, one on traditional kit and two on congas. Once four backup singers, three female and one male have taken their positions, the big moment has arrived at last. Stevie Wonder’s unceremonious appearance onstage is met with thunderous applause, cheers and a standing ovation.
After beginning the show with a tightly executed, bluesy, R and B instrumental, moving onto a new number and then, another which is unfamiliar to many in the crowd, including yours truly, the sense of anticipation seems to be waning slightly. These warm up pieces, which seem a bit frantically performed, allow those who feel inclined towards another beer to scurry up the aisles in search of more immediate stimulation. However, by the time Wonder launchs into one of his supremely soulful ballads, ‘I Don’t Want to Bore You (but I love you)’, he is on sparkling form, as lighting twinkles along on an animated backdrop behind him. His customarily sunny rapport with his audiences is further enabled by a singing lesson he conducts, during which listeners are meant to mimic his definitively soulful singing. ‘Sounds like my church,’ Wonder quips from his piano seat. ‘But don’t fake it,’ he adds, flashing a knowing smile as the faithful flounder in their attempts to replicate his soulful song style.
The band forms an impressively tightly knit ensemble and Wonder himself seems intent on demonstrating his musical versatility, switching between styles and instruments, piano, keyboard and harmonica throughout the show, allowing his fine and mellow voice to send ample chills up countless spines along the way. As he is also known as one of the first proponents of the Moog synthesizer, particularly as it relates to funk, Wonder demonstrates that fact through a reggae flavoured medley of Beatles and Stones songs, which includes wa-wa versions of ‘The Fool on the Hill’, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Satisfaction.’ By the time he has moved on to a song made famous by the Stylistics in 1972, ‘People Make the World Go Round,’ I am beginning to feel I might be in danger of OD-ing on former innovations, and wonder whether others are feeling the same way.
However, when Wonder and his by then fired up band launch into the classic ‘Higher Ground’ from the Grammy Award winning album Innervisions (1973), everyone jumps to their feet, all the way up to the rafters. Thirty-five years after its release, the song’s gritty, pulsating rhythms still inspire. A second instrumental ‘Sketches of Spain’ which has been performed by many jazz artists over the years follows and proves a worthy enough rendition of that number to please any jazz aficionados in the house. The piece is rife with solos, including one on soaring guitar, rhythmic triple drum solos and a single one from the band’s super drummer who exhibits control well beyond the range of more ordinary bashers.
‘Don’t You Worry About a Thing’ with its cha-cha rhythms seems tailor made to showcase the power of Wonder’s uniquely soulful vocal style and packs more punch in terms of impact per phrase thanks to his heartfelt delivery than anything even remotely like a prayer that more self-promotional songsters such as Madonna may ever have warbled. By this point in the show, Wonder’s verbal interaction with the audience seems to be met with increasingly mixed reactions from the increasingly sozzled in the crowd, as evidenced by the groans and incessant chattering of some members of the audience which is inevitably, intermittently broken only by wavering gyrations to their personal favourite songs. However, countless others in the crowd enthusiastically applaud Wonder’s admonition that, ‘energies of hate’ might cause us to ‘see our planet die before our eyes,’ as well as his wisely wry thought that, ‘it shouldn’t be a chore to be a joy.’ No sooner have these words left Wonder’s lips then a condensed version of ‘Living for the City,’ issues forth from him and his terrific band, further inciting the crowd to sing and dance. This is immediately followed by a sing-a-long version of ‘Part Time Lover’, in which the audience belts out the chorus of the song to Wonder’s infectious delight. My own favourite Wonder ballad, ‘Lately’ becomes one high point of the show for me and judging by the number of people singing along, for many others too.
Wonder’s daughter Aisha Morris, sings a lovely rendition of a Nancy Wilson song in a strong, but whispery voice effectively emoting on lines like, ‘I’m gonna dance you out of my dreams,’ providing another beer-fetching op for the perpetually thirsty, some of whom, by that point, rather comically, had trouble remembering where their seats were on their return.
After singing another unfamiliar ballad, in which he threatened he was, ‘Gonna Laugh (So Hard I’ll Cry)’ Wonder jokes with the crowd in an upper-crust English accent, more reminiscent of the era of bowler hats and umbrellas than the present, before telling them he wants them to do him, ‘a favour for a favour,’ by singing him a song. The crowd bursts into ecstatic applause as he begins a medley of popular favourites spanning his lengthily career with ‘My Cherie Amor’ and need no encouragement to sing along. ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered,’ ‘Sir Duke’, ‘Isn’t She Lovely,’ ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life,’ and ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ follow, much to the delight of the audience, many of whom are also, by now, dancing along en masse.
If one was to take Howard Harris’ definition of funk as “togetherness in motion”, according to Ricky Vincent, author of funk, (St. Martin's Griffen - New York, 1995 - forward by George Clinton), it could be said that, during the 1970’s, in particular, “Stevie brought together the entire black music legacy and served up plate after plate of exquisite soul-food gumbo, and made diverse, digestible music that funk bands far and wide aspired to.”
That being said, Stevie Wonder’s concert at O2 London was one of those rare occasions that those who’ve experienced it will no doubt, always remember, and possibly, sing along with in fond recollection from time to time, hopefully, in unison with other fans, as the man himself would have wished.
Copyright © EXTRA! EXTRA All rights reserved