September 17, 2007

From the Park I Hear Rhythms: Stevie Wonder - Live in Atlanta

In times of war and hostility among nationalities, ethnicities, and political persuasions, music has proven its power to put such tensions into context and, at its best, to transcend conflict in favor of a peaceful resolution. In an awesome performance on September 14 at Atlanta's Chastain Park Amphitheatre, Stevie Wonder reminded us that injustice in all its forms should be recognized for what it is, and remedied through exertions of faith, family, and love.

Escorted to the stage by his daughter, Aisha Morris, Wonder received an ovation appropriate not only to his status as a legendary and gifted musician, but also as a cultural icon.

In a poignant preface to the music, Wonder dedicated the event to his late mother, explaining that through her love and guidance, he learned that despite his physical blindness, there was no reason for him to grow up blind to the ways of the world. With his daughter at his side, he then commenced, fittingly, with “Love’s In Need Of Love Today.”

Backed by an eleven-piece band, Wonder illustrated his social consciousness and optimism in a brilliant sequence of songs, sparked by a sprawling and spellbinding take on “Visions” that culminated with a rousing protest to “Stop the War! Stop it!” before “Living For The City” brought his message into a more concise focus. Remarkably, albeit unfortunately, the latter song packs much the same punch in depicting current urban conditions as it did when initially released in 1973.

In the face of highlighting those societal ills, the Bob Marley inspired gem, “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” ushered in a positive hope for the future. A scorching gospel version of “Higher Ground” sealed the deal with Wonder’s vehement promise for the faithful to sing, “Gonna keep on tryin’/’Til I reach my highest ground.”

The soulful strains of “Golden Lady” set the tone for a gorgeous assortment of love songs, underscoring Wonder’s astonishing talent for expressing such vulnerable and intimate emotions. On an extended version of the majestic slow jam, “Ribbon In The Sky,” surprise guest India Arie joined Wonder, eliciting a lively audience sing-a-long. “The women were better in Chicago,” Wonder deadpanned as thousands of swooning females harmonized with their male counterparts. A yearning version of “Overjoyed” preceded “You And I,” one of Wonder’s finest articulations of love in a mortal world. A mournful, immensely touching rendition of “Lately” served as the crowning highlight of this stunning portion of the show.

Infused with Latin-tinged percussion, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” brought out a bit of levity before “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” brought the ecstatic audience to its feet. After playing the latter song’s original version, Wonder humorously rearranged it with a country music styling for the Georgia crowd, turning the Motown classic into something more in tune with the Grand Ole Opry. “Another hit for me!” Wonder exclaimed. “I love country music,” he added with a sly grin. He then proceeded to play a credible snippet of the Charlie Rich classic, “Behind Closed Doors,” to effectively prove his point.

Mischievously recounting his teenage exploits to win the affection of a young lady, Wonder conceded that his shifty efforts had only yielded a kiss on the cheek from his crush. His adolescent ambition did, however, inspire “My Cherie Amour,” much to the crowd’s elation.

The unmistakable funk of “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” assured the audience that it need not sit down for the rest of the evening. Caribbean rhythms and drums introduced “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” which segued into a climactic version of “Do I Do,” inspiring Wonder to stand atop his piano bench, with harmonica in hand, and blow to his own irresistible groove.

Given the pace and rising momentum of the previous few songs, the subsequent and final songs felt like what an encore would have included had one been taken. During “Isn’t She Lovely,” Aisha Morris, the original star and subject of the song, appreciatively sat next to her father. An all-too-brief rendition of “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” sounded exquisite until a crashing snare drum and music’s most famous synth riff erupted into “Superstition.” Another audience sing-a-along preceded “Part-Time Lover,” which prompted Wonder to jokingly comment, “If you don’t know this one, I’ll be upset!” Everyone knew that one, of course, as well as the next one, “I Just Called To Say I Love You.”

In a magnificent finale, Wonder performed “As,” a beautiful and superb culmination of everything the man professed during this incredible concert. “Just as hate knows love’s the cure,” he sang, “You can rest your mind assure/That I’ll be loving you always.”

Indeed, Stevie Wonder personifies that of which he sings and his songs serve as reassurance in a world that seldom measures up to the visions in our own minds.