Concert review: Stevie Wonder at the Schottenstein Center

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Stevie Wonder might draw exclusively on the past for his Songs in the Key of Life tour, which the singer brought to a near-capacity Schottenstein Center on Wednesday, but the music itself never felt like a relic from some bygone era.

In fact, the concert, which centered on Wonder's sprawling, masterful Songs in the Key of Life, released in 1976, could easily have passed for a trenchant commentary on modern times - a fact the Michigan-born singer hinted at in a winding introduction.

"If you hate anyone, you're blocking your blessing," he said, pointing directly to issues of racial inequality and making oblique reference to the religious freedom law signed last week in Indiana, which some critics believe could be utilized as a means of government sanctioned discrimination against the gay community. "We must be a united people of the States and of the world."

Songs like "Black Man," in turn, which stretched out over nearly 10 funk-filled minutes, found Wonder, 64, wrestling with issues of class and race, singing 40-year-old words that could have been cribbed from hand-painted poster board signs held aloft during recent Black Lives Matter marches in Missouri and elsewhere. "It's time we learned this world is made for all men," he crooned in a voice dimmed only slightly by the passage of time.

Similar themes surface in "Village Ghetto Land," with Wonder, accompanied by a 10-piece string section composed of local players, detailing an inner-city neighborhood plagued by crime and poverty and overseen by crooked, indifferent politicians. The juxtaposition between the lush musical arrangement - as light, graceful and composed as a ballerina - and the singer's words, which traversed gutters littered with broken glass and spattered with blood, further heightened the central tension in the tune.

Despite the sometimes overcast skies, Wonder never projected anything less than optimism. "Every problem has an answer," he surmised in an early duet with India Arie, who served as an occasional co-lead singer and sparring partner - an unfailingly upbeat mindset that carried over into even Wonder's most downtrodden tunes.

It helped, of course, that the singer had ample support from a small army of players, including a 10-piece string section, six backup singers, a six-piece horn section, four keyboardists, two drummers, two percussionists, two guitarists, and bassist Nathan Watts, who performed in the original sessions for Songs in the Key of Life.

Due at least in part to the sheer size of the ensemble, songs often developed into impromptu jam sessions, with Wonder prodding specific players to tackle extended solos.

"We as musicians and singers, we love to jam," he said. "It's our way of showing God we appreciate the gift he's given to us."

At times, these explorations attained something close to transcendence. Such was the case with the gorgeous coda tacked onto "Summer Soft," a fragile number where Wonder crooned about a broken heart atop a tissue-paper delicate arrangement that sounded as if it might disintergrate at the slightest touch.

Other times, these jams devolved into aimless exchanges that came unmoored and wandered Moses-like across the desert landscape, like the extended call-and-response session between Wonder and his backing singers that briefly derailed the concert leading into to the half-hour intermission.

These missteps were rare, however, and more often than not Wonder's gifts as an arranger and a singer helped bring fresh perspective to a batch of songs that has been around the better part of four decades.

The portrait that gradually immerged over the course of the evening was of a man still taken by life.

"Isn't She Lovely," for one, a song the musician penned for his then-baby daughter, Aisha, still beamed with fatherly pride, skipping along on a buoyant melody that projected the high-wattage smile of a first-time dad. "I Wish," a towering, funk-touched nugget, sent Wonder spinning back to his own childhood, pining for those comparatively innocent childhood days.

Even life's uglier moments - "Pastime Paradise," a dark, string-driven turn, rhymed segregation, mutilation and isolation - did little to dim Wonder's enthusiasm for humanity, in all it's open-hearted, cruel, conflicted, noisy, introverted, messy, sprawl.

"We'll never write all the songs in the key of life," Wonder said at the onset, though, thankfully, it hasn't stopped him from trying.