Stevie Wonder celebrated ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ with Janelle Monae and a Royals win last night at the Sprint Center

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Stevie Wonder
Friday, October 23
The Sprint Center

For the full slideshow from last night, go here

“For me, now than ever, the world is in need of love,” Stevie Wonder began last night at the Sprint Center in his introduction to the audience. “Thank you for being here with me.”

Stevie brought a lot of love — nearly three-and-a-half hours of it — to a performance that spanned one of Wonder’s greatest works, the socially conscious double-album opus Songs in the Key of Life. Last night’s concert featured captivating performances from dozens of musicians, including a lengthy surprise appearance by Janelle Monae, as well as Royals score updates from Wonder himself for the full stadium crowd. Between the setlist, the caliber of the musicians and the surrounding atmosphere of excitement in Kansas City, it was worthy of more superlatives than I may be able to conjure here.

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Wonder’s set-to-end-all-sets began around 8:15 p.m., with Wonder being escorted out by one of his (totally incredible) backup singers. As he held on to her arm, he warmly welcomed the crowd to the show, thanking everyone for attending despite the Royals playoff game conflict.  

“I have a lot of history here,” he explained. “One of my most favorite songs is about your city. The last time I was here was the day that we lost Michael. We will celebrate him tonight as well.”

He then sat down at his keyboard to launch into Songs of the Key of Life from front to back. As the backing vocals began lightly for “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” it became immediately clear what an undertaking this tour is. The album, of all in Wonder’s catalog, is his most ambitious, a four-side LP that essentially includes two albums: an album of love songs, as well as one that directly addresses spirituality, racial justice and poverty.

It also requires a lot of skilled instrumentation, from classical strings and harp to bold brass and entire choirs. How to accomplish this in a live setting? Well, if you are Stevie Wonder, just bring them all along. Even if you need 30 musicians onstage at once, rest assured they will be world-class.

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“Village Ghetto Land” perfectly captured Wonder’s vision for the performance of this album, and the live performance carried greater weight somehow than the recorded version. A lovely, complex major-chord string orchestration is the backdrop for Wonder’s precisely delivered — and still devastating, wholly relevant — lyrics: Broken glass is everywhere / it’s a bloody scene, killing plagues the citizens / unless they own police… Now some folks say we should be glad with what we have / Now would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?

The show then elegantly burst into the percussion-heavy “Contusion,” before becoming joyous and funky with “Sir Duke,” a tribute to Duke Ellington. The six-piece brass section blazed with the song’s cascading melody, and the crowd immediately moved into the aisles to dance. The audience — one of the most diverse I’ve seen at the Sprint Center — stayed in the aisles for the nostalgia-tinged “I Wish,” another of Wonder’s pop sensations, heavy with a rolling bass line, brass, fully rounded backing vocals and Wonder’s own growling voice. Audience members responded as if they were in church, raising arms in worship, only to break down into dance with the bass line. This was joyful, this was transcendent — and it was only the sixth song. 

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During the performance of “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” the band was diverted into a sing-off between each of Wonder’s backing vocalists and Wonder himself. In this respect, Wonder is an incredibly generous and confident performer. Every artist in his troupe is afforded an opportunity to be fully introduced and musically realized at center stage.

Wonder, too, is surprisingly funny. He playfully teased the audience, his band members and singers. He roused the crowd, telling us: “Your game is on the line.” He also got happy, bashful giggles out of a backing vocalist and a percussionist, with the singer quite visibly pregnant with the percussionist’s baby. With Wonder’s charm at peak brightness, he also discussed something important to him: giving young people the opportunity to express themselves through music. 

“Too many people think music is not important. Music calms the soul. Everyone needs to express themselves.” And then, like any good comic, he went back for laughs with a story about how Barry Gordy dissed “I Wish.” 

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There was a 30-minute intermission, during which much of the crowd retreated to the Sprint Center’s bars to watch the Royals quickly score, and then the Blue Jays tie the game at 3-3 with a Jose Bautista double home run. When Wonder’s recess ended, he immediately brightened the room back up with the second LP, starting off with “Isn’t She Lovely.” The song gave Wonder an opportunity to display a bit of virtuosity on the harmonica, through the song’s nearly two-minute harp solo.

The second half of the show served as a reminder of how diverse the Keys of Life album is. At the end of “Black Man,” the full sample of the racially conscious history lesson — the same one featured on the original album — played, and the band ended the song with fists raised. A harmonica version of the “Star Spangled Banner” was featured during “Easy’ Goin’ Evening,” then came a gorgeous Spanish/English duet with backing vocalist Jazmin Cruz for “Ngicuela — Es Una Historia — I Am Singing.”

Another highlight came with a touching tribute to Detroit jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby, who died of cancer in 1986. Wonder used her original harp track during “If It’s Magic,” standing alone onstage bathed in light for the performance. The audience was rapt. 

“We did it!” Wonder exclaimed as they reached the last song from the album. It was then that he provided what was the greatest surprise of the evening, introducing Kansas City native Janelle Monae to the stage to sing “Another Star.” She beamed, and her voice soared. During the song, the Royals clinched Game 6 of the ALCS Championship. The atmosphere went from buoyant to electric. 

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Janelle Monae & Stevie Wonder tonight in KC. Video nowhere near as great as they were. #kcmo #igkansascity #instakc

A video posted by April Fleming (@dolores2175) on

As Wonder had taken an extended 30-minute intermission rather than a 15-minute intermission as planned (he mentioned he needed the break to clear his voice), it was nearly 11:30 by the time the band wrapped up Songs in the Key of Life. But with Monae at his side, Wonder was not done. As he announced the Royals’ victory to the crowd, he yelled, “It’s time to celebrate!”

The triumphant energy inside the Sprint Center was palpable — overwhelming, even. Wonder assumed the identity of “DJ Tick Tock,” and teased the audience with his and Monae’s versions of Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City (Here I Come),”Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” from McFadden and Whitehead, and because DJ Tick Tock “knows the new stuff, too,” there was the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” Wonder led the audience in a Royals cheer. Monae, with an ear-to-ear smile, thanked Wonder profusely, telling him what he has meant to her career; she told the audience that her father, her Hawthorne family and friends were all in the crowd. She playfully reminded Wonder that she was from Kansas, not Missouri.

“To be onstage with you is an honor. Thank you for this,” she gushed. She and Wonder then teased the audience once again with a medley of some of his greatest hits, including “Higher Ground” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” before bringing the evening to its peak with an earth-shaking rendition of “Superstition,” with Monae taking many of the vocal duties.

Early in the show, Wonder had shared this nugget with the audience: “Whatever you do in this life, remember that this night is just for us, forever.” It was a life-affirming line I recalled with chills as I shuffled my way out of the venue, rubbing shoulders with strangers who looked as euphoric as I felt. And Wonder was right: What happened last night, in that stadium with those people, could only have happened in Kansas City — and it was sublime. 

Leftovers: Apparently, some of Wonder’s band just had a little more music in them to give, and a handful of them — a harmonica player, two saxophone players, a drummer and a keyboardist — showed up at the Mutual Musicians’ Foundation for an early morning jam session. For the three dozen or so people packed into the historic room, there was no greater surprise or grander finale. As one audience member put it: “This is what it’s all about.”

Setlist:
Love’s in Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God
Village Ghetto Land
Contusion
Sir Duke
I Wish
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Pastime Paradise
Summer Soft
Ordinary Pain
Saturn
Ebony Eyes
Intermission
Isn’t She Lovely
Joy Inside My Tears
Black Man
Easy Goin’ Evening/Star Spangled Banner
All Day Sucker
Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing
If It’s Magic
As
Another Star (feat. Janelle Monae)
DJ Tick Tick Boom Medley: Kansas City (Wilbert Harrison)/Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now (McFadden & Whitehead)/Can’t Feel My Face (the Weeknd)
Medley: Do I Do/ Living for the City/ Higher Ground/ Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours
Superstition (feat. Janelle Monae)