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Stevie Wonder at Taste of Chicago

Grant Park, Chicago, IL

Saturday, June 28, 2008

By Linda Cain

Photos by Jennifer Wheeler

stevie-wonderThe first time I saw Stevie Wonder perform, he was the opening act for the Rolling Stones on their Exile On Main Street  tour in the summer of 1972. This dream double bill took place at the long-gone International Amphitheater on the city’s Southwest Side. But to Chicago’s officials at the time, the show was viewed as a potential nightmare. The fact that Stevie and the Stones would draw a racially mixed crowd was considered most controversial and possibly dangerous. (Fortunately any fears of violence were unfounded and the diverse concert crowd got along just fine).

Thankfully times have changed, thanks to the civil rights movement and to socially conscious artists like Stevie Wonder.  Thirty-six years after the “scary” Stones/Wonder concert, Chicago officials no longer fear activist musicians; but instead honor them. Saturday night’s free outdoor concert at the Taste of Chicago, which drew massive crowds to Grant Park, was evidence of social progress. Not only was this a music concert, it was a political and cultural event, not to mention a great party.

The show began at 5:37 p.m., with Stevie being led to the stage by his gorgeous daughter, Aisha, who also serves as a backup singer. It had been 20 years since the last time Stevie played the Taste of Chicago, and he declared “A lot has happened in 20 years, but I’m still looking good!” to cheers from the audience. Standing alone on stage, he went on to give a short, inspirational political speech, in which he sang Barack Obama’s name in the key of C, voiced his disagreement with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on handguns, decried violence and beseeched his fans to become “the United People of the United States.”

These themes of unity and nonviolence continued throughout the evening, which came with a few surprises. The chic attire of the event had to be Obama t-shirts.

Wonder could have filled the next two hours and 41 minutes with his early Motown hits alone, he’s had so many of them, before he even turned 21 in 1971. But rather than perform a predictable greatest hits/oldies collection, he played some lesser-known pieces, too, such as “Golden Lady,” and “Hey Love,” as he dipped into his songbook from each decade. He even included a cover of the standard, “Fever.”

 From dreamy ballads to vibrant Latin-flavored numbers to jazzy vocal flights, reggae-rhythms, pop and old-school R&B, Stevie’s song selection fully utilized his 13-piece backup band to capacity, not to mention Stevie’s own array of keyboards and synthesizers. And, of course, his wonderful harmonica playing! Wonder’s voice is an instrument unto itself and it’s still magnificent at age 58.

In the major hit category, Wonder got everyone singing, clapping and dancing along with:

“Masterblaster (Jammin’),” “Higher Ground,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,”  “Living For The City,” “Isn’t She Lovely?”, “Ribbon In The Sky,”  “My Cherie Amour,”  “Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish (those days could come back once more),” “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” “I Was Made To Love Her,” “Superstition,” “I’ll Be Loving You Always,” and “Overjoyed.”

In fact, Stevie seemed overjoyed to be performing in Chicago for such a huge crowd. He’s a master showman; a performer who completely knows how to work a crowd. On stage, Wonder is very animated and mobile, and full of surprises. At one point during the show, he stood up on his piano bench, wiggling and singing, his long braids swaying, then jumped down, landing soundly. During another number, he ventured to the edge of the stage and knelt down to sing to the screaming fans in the front rows.

He loves to chat and interact with the patrons, encouraging singalongs and audience participation. He has a clever touch when introducing songs, too. For example, he did the Peter Frampton thing, singing the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her?” through a vocoder. Then it was a snippet of Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” before he launched into his own “Higher Ground” which caused the crowd to spring to its feet.

He led into the lovely, romantic “Ribbon in the Sky” with a question: “I wonder if a survey’s been done for how many times has someone made love to a Stevie Wonder song? Fellas, you done that?”

As Wonder was finishing his eleventh song, which started as a slow ballad and built to a bluesy scat vocal during which he sang about “economic and social justice,” Rev. Jesse Jackson appeared on stage and whispered to Stevie. The civil rights leader then commanded the crowd to scream for Stevie as he recited a long list of the entertainer’s many accomplishments in working for equality and social justice. The Rev revved up the crowd into chanting “I am somebody” and “stop the violence, stop the guns, save the children.”

Wonder asked the preacher to sit next to him, as he transitioned into his next song, the appropriately timed, “Living For The City.”

Halfway through the show, Wonder mentioned two new ventures he is working on: a gospel music CD and a project with his mother, who is his lifelong songwriting partner. He performed one new song from the latter, the smooth jazz-styled: “Keep Fooling Yourself Baby, Girl.”  

Then it was time for his real baby girl, Aisha, who is now a lovely young woman, to take center stage. Sitting near her father, she crooned a slow jazz standard style ballad. Her sweet, soft voice seemed better suited for an intimate club, rather than a massive outdoor concert stage, but hey, she’s still young.

Then it was Dad’s turn to serenade her and he sang “Isn’t She Lovely?” as Aisha stood by him.

Just before the final number, city officials came on stage to surprise the performer with a huge plaque, a gift from Mayor Daley, to honor Wonder’s appearances at the Taste of Chicago. Stevie thanked the city and the fans for supporting his career and dedicated his last song to the people of Chicago: “I’ll Be Loving You Always.”

Before he took his final bows, Wonder reprised his inspirational message of hope and nonviolence, and repeated his support for Barack Obama to the cheering crowd of 78,000 (some of whom were by Buckingham Fountain watching the show on a video screen).

By the time it was over, at about 8:18 p.m., Wonder and the band had performed 30 songs.

Even though he’s been at it since age 12, Stevie Wonder still retains a childlike joy and exuberance in his performance.  Wonder is able to make each audience member feel that he is there just for them, because he plays from his heart. From grannies boogie-ing in their walkers to little children, everyone was having fun on this night to remember.

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