Friday, September 12, 2008

It's Not Even Summer, Is It?

Stevie Wonder, London O2 Arena, 11th September 2008

On one level, it seems completely churlish to complain about Stevie Wonder’s performance at the O2 last night. Mercifully, we *are* treated to many of the highpoints of his back catalogue (‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’, ‘My Cherie Amour’, a huge chunk of the ‘Innervisions’ album, ‘Superstition’, ‘Sir Duke’, ‘Knocks Me Off My Feet’, ‘I Wish’ amongst others). He has a huge band supporting him onstage and from the back of the hellish O2 it’s frequently difficult to determine precisely who is doing what. Does he really need two other keyboardists in addition to himself? Two percussionists and a drummer?!

Unfortunately, though, I could only leave ‘A Wonder Summer’s Night’ (a bit of a crass and unimaginative name for a tour) with a heavy heart and a feeling that this once great artist no longer has any interest in being original or challenging. The show is so poorly sequenced as to be interminably disengaging for substantial chunks of its epic duration. His opening rendition of Miles Davis’ ‘All Blues’ is unexpected and pleasing – but a little odd for an audience who will not associate the piece with the performer on stage. In fact, Wonder’s still dazzling piano playing demonstrates a consistent jazz influence throughout the show, although it is often refracted through a prism that magnifies the schmaltz at the expense of the substance. The rest of the show suffers from disorientating lurches in pace and style – he’ll play an upbeat funk gem from his golden period and then immediately follow it with a sentimental ballad or an aimless jam.

Even at its best, the music is arranged and performed in a manner that is unsuitably slick. These hard-hitting, technically proficient gospel rhythm sections appear to be de rigeur these days – but as impressive as they are, they are musically one-dimensional (the whole show lacks dynamic or textural variety) and often boring as a result. The appeal of Wonder’s fantastic run of albums from Music of My Mind to Songs In The Key of Life during the 1970s was that there was a certain sloppiness to the sound as well as precision to the rhythm – it’s this tension that provided the invigorating groove and the palpable sense of soul. Both are sadly absent in this concert. There’s a fairly uninspired Latin groove over which Wonder introduces his entire band and lets every musician take a solo – but even this seems to have had any sense of spontaneity surgically removed.

Lamentable inconsistency has been Wonder’s Achilles Heel since 1975 (‘Songs in the Key of Life’ favoured his sentimental side, although he got away with it then through the sheer verve and spirit of that music). As he has become less prolific, his lapses of taste and decency have become all the more startling. Personally, I could have done without the excruciating extended version of ‘Ribbon In The Sky’ (one of many moments when he gets a bit ambitious with his demands in terms of audience participation) and the mid-section of the set that favours ballads with Wonder at the piano could have happily been curtailed. I suspect everyone could have done without the spiel about his mother dying and inspiring him to return to music too, but he has always been a painfully sincere and earnest artist. His request for a minute's silence on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was handled with more sensitivity and restraint, and I found myself rather angry with the morons who broke it with shouts of 'we love you Stevie!'

Whilst it’s great to see Wonder visibly enjoying his time on stage and treating fans to a generous set, the moments of audience participation and playfulness seem rambling and unfocused. There’s a moment when he sings ‘Hello London’ through a vocoder and you hope it’s going to meld into one of this 70s classics, but it never arrives anywhere at all. Sometimes he just stops completely and tries to engage the audience in call-and-response sessions but at the back of the venue, we’re just too detached from any kind of atmosphere to engage. There are so many moments when people drift to the bar and for once I find myself understanding the motivation to get a drink – I just wish he’d get on with it!

Vocally, Wonder is now a little vulnerable. The upper end of his register is still very strong, but at the lower end he seems to have lost power and volume. Sometimes his voice cracks or he doesn’t quite hit the right note, odd for a musician with such a capable ear. There are some songs (‘Knocks Me Off My Feet’ and ‘Visions’ particularly) where he seems to be struggling with the control of his voice and some of the lines are noticeably wayward as a result.

In spite of all this, the show certainly has its moments. ‘Higher Ground’ is as passionate and invigorating as ever, perhaps given fresh political resonance by Wonder’s passionate support for Barack Obama. Some lesser material from ‘Hotter Than July’ (including an enjoyable ‘Masterblaster’) stands up surprisingly well. ‘Don’t You Worry About A Thing’ and ‘Living For The City’ are also welcome treats, although, in his unwillingness to play the full seven minutes of the latter, the tempo is subjected to a bizarre and inappropriate acceleration. Similarly, whilst it’s good to hear the gorgeous ‘Visions’ amongst the ballads, its new soft rock coda is ill-judged, particularly when one of the guitarists begins shredding gratuitously to no discernible emotional impact.

Like Prince at his shows at the same venue last year, Wonder treats some of his greatest songs with far less respect than they deserve. An invigorating ‘Uptight’ is cut short and merged into a grotesque mass singalong of ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’. I have never met anyone who has admitted liking the latter song, yet it remains Wonder’s biggest UK hit and gets the biggest ovation of the night. Frankly, who can blame Wonder for all his cheesy indulgences tonight when his paying audience are so undiscerning? It’s great to hear ‘I Wish’ and ‘Isn’t She Lovely?’, but frustrating that they are edited and merged together in a hurried medley. We needed more of this material earlier in the show!

Even tonight, there’s still plenty of evidence that Wonder is a master musician – the better of his ballads are intricate and intelligent, with harmonic complexity rarely found in pop music. His groove based music remains peerless, and even the treatment handed out to it by this mercilessly rehearsed band of session musos can’t really diminish that power. So, the final half hour of the show is at the very least entertaining. Better still, that pure and clear sound he gets from the harmonica remains one of the most beautiful sounds on earth. I would have liked to hear more of it.

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