Thirty-eight years ago this month, Stevie Wonder released his masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life. Yesterday, he announced he would be taking it on tour. And the Internet went wild.
To this day it remains the most fully realized, sonically diverse and socially conscious funk/soul album ever to be put to wax. It addresses a wide range of social ills, including racism, war and poverty. But Wonder knows these problems haven't gone away, and after achieving an overwhelming reaction to his live performance of the album last December at a House Full of Toys benefit concert, he's going on an 11-city reunion tour to spread the gospel of soul once again.
We've had a brutal, bloody summer with next to no modern pop music fit to help us cope with all the tragedy. But some good '70s bell-bottomed soul may be just what we all need. As a sneak preview of what special sort of joy this tour could bring, here are 11 classic live performances of Wonder's classic album.
The album's opener is a statement of intent. It offers a simple but sweeping universal call for peace: Less war, more love and the world will be a better place for all. The above performance of the song aired as part of a benefit concert telethon titled America: A Tribute to Heroes held on September 21, 2001 to raise money for the victims and families affected by 9/11. Wonder opens the performance with a powerful line, the truth of which rings out now more than ever, as America's fear of terrorist threats from abroad rise again.
"When you say that you kill in the name of God or in the name Allah, you are truly cursing God, for that is not of God," he says. "When you say you hate in the name of God or Allah, you are lying to God, for that is not of our Father. Let us pray that we see the light."
"Village Ghetto Land" is pure genius. It juxtaposes the hard facts of the world's endemic poverty with a classical string quartet with graphic stories of life in the underbelly: "Families eating dog food now / Starvation roams the streets."
Wonder explains the intentions of the track on the above documentary clip: "As much as the world has gotten smaller because of mass communication, we still have people starving, living in bad conditions. We still have people who do have enough to give not giving anything at all. I wonder what will happen to them ..."
"Contusion" is the album's only instrumental track. It's chaotic and dramatic, swelling into huge crescendos before ebbing back into longer jazz fusion melodic passages. It seems to capture the unpredictable, vibrant, often disorienting rhythms of modern life. It will be awesome to see an older Wonder maneuver through this heavy number later this year.
It's no coincidence that the most well-known song off Songs in the Key of Life is also the one with the most universal scope and message. "Sir Duke" seeks to unite people with all different beliefs and backgrounds by reminding them all that they're connected by their shared human ability to feel music.
On "I Wish" Wonder reminisces about being a rebellious and carefree young man, smoking cigarettes behind the school and spraying curse words in graffiti, before growing up to realize that none of that makes the world a better place. At the same time, though, there's a clear wistfulness for the ability to take a break from the heavy awareness of a corrupt society. It's one of the more complex songs on the album, and it gives a glimpse of the inescapable humanity the album does an impeccable job of capturing.
The song is a deep, soulful romantic cut. Wonder still performs it at most tour dates and often uses it as a jumping off point for some audience conversation. In the above clip, he gets the audience to follow him into the chorus of "I love you. There's nothing wrong with celebrating love." This 2008 audience is hesitant to join at first, but with encouragement and a strong example on stage, eventually they build to a proud swell. "You all sound more like my church," Wonder compliments them.
Stevie Wonder wrote this song to celebrate the birth of his daughter, Aisha. The clips of that crying baby that appear on the album and in some live versions of the song are actual clips of him and his daughter playing together. It's one of the better-known tracks off the album.
Interestingly, though, it was never released as a single. To do so, Wonder would've had to cut the baby wails and his shredding harmonica solo to make it a manageable length for radio. He refused to do that, and because of this it remains one of the most unique and resonant songs in his catalog.
The song shares the monumental achievements of people of color throughout history, which are often overlooked because of the Eurocentric view of history our culture often pushes. "Black Man" covers Harriet Tubman, Squanto and Caesar Chavez, among others.
The track's incredibly funky bass line turns the otherwise straightforward history lesson into the perfect groove for a Soul Train dance party.
As seen above in the "Sir Duke" Super Bowl performance (and some of the others), Stevie Wonder can get pretty cheesy. The song "Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing" itself has high aims; its title alone unites three different cultures to proclaim the uplifting power of song. But the above 1995 performance of "Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I am Singing" features Wonder belting the heartfelt song from a row boat/piano hybrid floating in a stream of rippling water.
It's somewhat distracting, but definitely touching. Expect a touch of tasteful cheese from the reunion tour.
As all of these videos have proven, Stevie Wonder is one of the most remarkably consistent musicians ever to sit behind the piano. The inspirational chorus of "As" always inspires, and it will continue to "until the ocean covers every mountain high" (which may be sooner than we think).
Until we dream of life and life becomes a dream, Stevie Wonder's music makes the impossible feel attainable.
Stevie Wonder belted this version of the album's closer in 1989 for his Birthday Celebration concert, closing it out by leaping up from his piano to rock an epic dueling drum solo with his percussionists. The man can do harmonica, piano, vocals and drums with virtuosic perfection.
Expect more of the same when his tour starts in November. This is a huge album, and it requires a huge amount of instruments and styles — and a heroic effort — to communicate its universal vision.