There’s a makeshift intermission during The Stevie Wonder Song Party where the Motown legend takes a breather to sit behind his keyboard while DJ Qwess Coast plays a cross section of classics from Wonder’s deceased contemporaries including David Bowie’s Just Dance, Aretha Franklin’s Respect, and Prince’s When Doves Cry. Just one out of a handful of bizarre moments throughout the night, some took this as a cue to run to the bar, while others took it as an opportunity to share a moment with one of the few remaining greats.
As Wonder frequently reminds us throughout, tonight is a celebration of life, love and music. This in turn brings to mind the legend’s own mortality. Only a few nights previous he cleared up rumours surrounding his health, announcing an upcoming kidney transplant in September. Dublin is one of the last gigs he’ll play for a long time and he’s showing all the signs of slowing down. The price of longevity isn’t cheap.
The Stevie Wonder Song Party has become a serious bone of contention. This is his first Irish gig in nine years, so anticipation was high, however it still seems fair to cut the 69-year-old some slack. Though something should have twigged at the mere mention of a ‘song party’, Twitter reacted with outrage- some people leaving half an hour into an almost two and a half hour set.
Commencing at 8pm sharp, there is no support act- unless you count Dj Qwess Coast attempting a pre-party warm-up during the inevitable rush from the bar to the seats. Despite throwing out classic cuts such as Marvin Gaye’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, some fans were left feeling a little cold. Dj Qwess Coast also served as Wonder’s hype man, lauding him as “the greatest man on the planet”. There’s no room for exaggeration here, 3Arena is already packed to the rafters. Earth Wind & Fire’s September plays as the man himself takes to the stage and takes his rightful place behind the piano.
Opener As If You Read My Mind is marred with sound issues- though it’s hard to tell if much could have been done with a 17-strong live band behind him. This included six backing singers and instruments ranging from alto-sax and trumpet to three drum and percussion sets (+1 for delightful guest drumming from Wonder’s son Kailand Morris).
Snafus notwithstanding, the sexagenarian sure knows how to throw a party. He provides us with a show as colourful as his career. His 1980’s tribute to Bob Marley Master Blaster melts into a recording of Markey’s Jammin’ and the custom wristbands provided at the door lit up the arena into a sea of green. These change throughout the night to reflect the mood of each song.
From the jazzy Sir Duke to the sweet refrain of My Cherie Amour, it’s hard not to appreciate the influence this man has had on music. And the hits just keep on coming. During For Once In My Life he stands and breaks out the harmonica. Towards the end of the show he shows off his newest instrument- a harpejji- for a rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs Robinson.
What could definitely have been a more cohesive show was instead a wandering affair, but you may as well kick back and enjoy the view.
Social commentary is kept to a minimum. He introduces Living For The City as a song “still relevant but shouldn’t be”, demanding “Do you believe in unity, people coming together as one? Here’s a treaty. Ya agree to sign it? Are you with me?” before a rousing performance of Obama’s presidential campaign song Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.
Wonder also takes the time to give each of his backing singers a chance to shine, telling the crowd “you GOTS to hear this”. From Alicia Keys’ If I Ain’t Got You to a tongue-in-cheek snippet of Baby Shark– this was a lesson in vocal acrobatics. Until we get to Keith John, the sole male backing vocalist, who dedicates his version of Fever to its original singer, his father Little Willie John.
Superstition is as sharp and funky as ever and a worthy curtain call for this song party. ‘We had a real real real song party! I love you all, God bless you.’ Just like that, it’s all over. Wonder leaves as he came in, walking gingerly and flanked by his backing vocalists. No matter how bizarre, all of these moments add up to what may be the last chance to see one of the few remaining greats live.