Saturday Sounds: Stevie Wonder at Thompson Boling Arena

Awaiting Stevie Wonder, Thompson Boling Arena, Knoxville, November 2015
Awaiting Stevie Wonder, Thompson Boling Arena, Knoxville, November 2015

My bucket list of performers I want to see has gotten shorter over the years. Some of it, unfortunately, is the result of attrition due to the fact that many of them are aging. On a more positive note, I’ve seen many, many of them in concert and treasure the memories of being in the presence of greatness. Neil Young and Chuck Berry are two I’ve crossed off in a good way in recent years. I saw Neil here and I traveled to St. Louis, Mo. for the express purpose of seeing Chuck several years ago. I’m pretty much down to Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Van Morrison.

One I never expected to check off was Stevie Wonder. He was one of my earliest pop/rock favorites. Before I could afford vinyl albums and had to restrict myself to 79¢ singles which I played to death. I bought “If You Really Love Me,” not his best, but it got me started. My favorite run of Stevie Wonder singles came in the next three years or so, 1972 – 1974: “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” “Living for the City,” “You Haven’t Done Nothing,” “Boogie on Reggae Woman.” I had no idea he’d recording in the 1960s, but I loved the social justice with a groove.

Then came “Songs in the Key of Life,” and even without knowing his earlier catalog, the man’s genius was on display and undeniable. The hits filled the airwaves over the course of both 1976 and 1977. “I Wish,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” the brilliant “Sir Duke” which introduced many of us kids to another musical giant, “Another Star,” “As.” It’s really hard to comprehend how brilliant, pervasive and influential that album was both with its hits and the exploration of sound inside a genius’ mind.

That album forms the center of Stevie’s current tour and, like few other artists and albums, it fills like a concert unto itself. There were a few other hits – “Superstition,” concluded the night, but the night mostly centered on that album and more so on the man at the center of that sonic vortex.

The 8:00 PM concert started promptly at 8:30. He actually walked out on stage about 8:20 and talked for about ten minutes. He did the same after intermission, only that time he brought out to the stage his youngest four children (he has nine) and their mother. He talked at other times and most of the times was embraced by the crowd, though when he talked about needing to control guns in this country, I thought I could detect a chill in the room.

Stevie Wonder, Thompson Boling Arena, Knoxville, November 2015
Stevie Wonder, Thompson Boling Arena, Knoxville, November 2015

The music soared all night without a glitch. The man’s voice simply stuns. He’s sixty-five and hit every note he hit when he was twenty-five. He also remembered every lyric and I think we can safely assume it wasn’t the result of a teleprompter. On that note, he made several jokes about his lack of vision, though he certainly seems to have an appreciation for female beauty blind or not.

The sheer size of the entourage on stage boggles the mind. A small orchestra of probably fifteen or sixteen, a choir of around a dozen, seven background singers (who each took turns at a solo), two drummers and a percussionist, three guitar players, a six person brass section and two additional keyboard players, as best I can recall. No wonder tickets cost so much. Just feeding, housing and moving those people and their instruments from city to city would cost a fortune – and I suspect they like to get paid.

One of the highlights featured Stevie on harpejji an odd instrument that sounds like multiple guitars. Of course, the hits like Sir Duke brought the crowd to their feet. The show seemed destined to go all night and he seemed to genuinely enjoy himself. Finally, around midnight, he hit the first notes to “Superstition,” and closed it out. An absolutely brilliant night.

If you’d like, you’ll find a proper review and excellent photographs by the great Bill Foster on Blank Newspaper’s website. Sincerest apologies for my photographs shot with an android phone I passionately hate. I’ll leave you with a little Stevie to savor.

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