By Steve Jansen Photos by Luke Holwerda
Better than: Everything
Shows to see before I die:
Björk Led Zeppelin Radiohead Stevie Wonder (check)
When I was a fourth grader at Tempe’s Curry Elementary, a couple of kids cornered me on the playground. Their agenda? They wanted to let me know how they truly felt about me.
Back then, in 1986, there were a number of standard verbal assaults. “Queer bait” was a classic blast. If you drank from the last spout of the four faucet drinking fountain, you were consuming “pee.” And, if your name was Mike, your self-esteem would be much better off in a home school environment, because anyone with this namesake was subject to incessant taunts of “Mikey likes it” from the Life Cereal commercials:
Save for the Mikey thing, I was subject to anything and everything a snot-nosed punk could dish out. But on this particular teasing session, I heard a brand-new insult.
“Look! It’s Stevie Wonder!”
Damn. That hurt.
I’ve always gone by Steve. Not Stephen (my birth name), Stevie, Steve-a-rino, Steve-o, or any other lame derivative. So, in those moments, I wondered where they had picked up such a filthy thing to say.
I don’t really remember if I cried like a pussy, countered with a verbal blitzkrieg of my own, or looked sheepishly into the ground. All I recall is that I felt super upset that somebody had compared me to some head-swaying blind dude. Looking back, they probably clowned me because my well-meaning mother would dress me in alligator polo shirts, Ocean Pacific nut huggers, and neon yellow Chuck Taylor’s, and not because of my name.
If only I could give my nine year-old self a talking to, especially after seeing Mister Wonderland in concert last night at Glendale’s Jobing.com Arena. My younger self would realize what a dumbass he was back then.
The 57 year-old soul conquistador wrapped up what he said was “his first ever tour” with a totally righteous two-and-a-half hour performance (no intermission) on a stage bathed in a sea of guitars, percussion instruments, keyboards, and backup singers (in all, 12 members).
Stevie Wonder and his (literally) big band. Watch Luke Holwerda's slideshow from the Stevie Wonder concert.
This was my first arena show since age 16, when I willingly paid money to see Boyz II Men at what is now known as the U.S. Airways Center (don’t make fun, a’ight? It was good shit). I spend a majority of my concert-watching time with patchouli-scented kids sitting Indian-style on the floor of experimental performance venues. Because of this, I experienced genuine culture shock walking into the faux-glitzy Westgate Center.
But once I got over the lame concession stand photos of cold cuts and the woman in section 111, row C, seat 12 -- who felt it necessary to yammer during the quieter songs -- I was able to tune out the stimuli and bathe in Stevie’s signature soul style.
Wonder’s daughter and background vocalist, Aisha Morris, escorted her legendary father to the stage, where he told a story about the death of his mother. (Lula Mae Hardaway passed away on May 31, 2006, which Wonder said was “the worst day of his life.”) Following a long grieving process, he decided at the last minute (and to the chagrin of his promoter) to embark on this “A Wonder Autumn Night” tour.
Wonder and his daughter/backup singer, Aisha Morris.
The set list:
Love’s In Need Of Love Today Too High Visions Living for the City Master Blaster (Jammin’) Higher Ground Golden Lady Ribbon in the Sky Overjoyed You and I (We Can Conquer the World) Send One Your Love How Will I Know (from 2005’s A Time to Love) If You Really Love Me Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (country version) My Cherie Amor Sir Duke I Wish You Are the Sunshine of My Life Superstition Fever I Just Called to Say I Love You As
The always outspoken Wonder used the stage for his inspirational information during “Visions.” The diatribe -- updated with social, political, and religious issues shrouding planet Earth 2007 -- sounded more like a rallying cry than a bitch session.
In between “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” and “Higher Ground,” Wonder used a vocal alternating device that made him sound like a robot. He did quick breakdowns of soul classics such as “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” The Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow,” and “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge.
During the conclusion of “Ribbon in the Sky,” Wonder performed an improvised ditty, where he sounded (and looked) like a panting dog in heat. From there, a totally amazing ode to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” followed the love song “You and I.” Then, during “If You Really Love Me,” he did another tight2def soul medley, with amazing interpretations of James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” and “It’s Alright” by Curtis Mayfield.
Stevie Wonder: Aptly named.
The latter half of the gig was most definitely the time for crowd-pleasing. The joint erupted during “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and a subsequent down-home country interpretation of the tune, as well as “My Cherie Amor,” “Sir Duke,” and, of course, “Superstition.”
To end the show, Wonder spoke candidly during “As.” What came out of the peace ambassador’s mouth was truly a shock: “If you really feel the need to hate, if you really, really feel the need, then you can die and go to hell.”
Overall, the concert felt way too short. I definitely could’ve sat there for another couple of hours. It’s also amazing that Wonder still possesses a fresh set of vocal chords akin to a young American Idol contestant.
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I’ll definitely be seeing him again if he comes back to town. By the way, no jokes about how he won’t be able to see me, please.
Personal bias: Not since D’Angelo’s Voodoo Tour show at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theater did I feel like two-and-a-half hours of music wasn’t enough.
Random detail: Celebs in attendance included Iron Mike Tyson and ex-Phoenix Suns star Cedric Ceballos. They both joined Wonder onstage during the gig’s final tune.