Stevie Wonder played at the Oakland Arena Friday December 5, 2014 performing his 1976 masterwork, Songs In The Key of Life. He arrived amidst a series of tense protests in Oakland and across the country over the grand jury verdict that declined to indict a white New York cop over the choke-hold death of Eric Garner, a black man who was stopped by police for selling loose cigarettes earlier this year. While protesters took to the streets just blocks away from the concert venue, and even shut down highway 880 outside, Stevie took the stage to urge love and harmony for all people, acknowledging that there is still far to go with race relations, before launching into the entire 22 song suite for a show that lasted more than three rapturous hours.
The “Songs in the Key of Life” album is one of Stevie’s most accomplished, and certainly includes many of his most meaningful, touching lyrics. Some speak to race relations, but more reflect the positive experiences of his childhood, and praise God and love eternal. These messages were perfectly suited for the evening, and as he went through the set, key songs were introduced with stories and short statements. The album was presented in it’s entirety, beginning after a lengthy introduction and welcome, followed by a beautiful rendition of the first song, “Love’s In Need of Love Today” clearly articulating it’s sentiments in his undiminished tone:
Each song was presented as it’s own work of musical art, some with just Stevie and one or two accompanists, others with up to thirty backup musicians and singers, some part of the main band, some guests. The entire album was delivered at the highest level of excellence of any show I’ve seen. Stevie was in perfect voice, demonstrating his immense skills as a vocalist, and player of harmonica, piano, synthesizer, and other instruments. The music travels a wide range including R&B, soul, funk, gospel, fusion, and a dash of rock and it seemed perfectly fitting for such a substantial entourage to reproduce them. For the second track, Stevie brought India Ari to the fore singing “Have a Talk With God.” The next track, “Village Ghetto Land” was performed by Stevie with just his ten-piece orchestra – a heartbreaking story of poverty and despair in the inner city. The six-piece horn section punctuated celebratory tracks “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” just as one would dare to hope. Bass from original collaborator Nathan Watts, along with three keyboard players, three guitarists, and as many drummers pumped up funky tracks like “Contusion” and “Black Man.” Backup singers included Stevie’s daughter, Aisha, herself introduced for the song “Isn’t She Lovely” written for her almost 40 years ago. All the performers rose to the occasion, surely realizing they were not just playing a normal concert, but performing one of the greatest albums of our time, with one of our greatest artists.
The highlight for this witness were the last few songs, each a different ode to love. First, a wonderful version of “If It’s Magic” – Stevie singing along with a recording of original harpist Dorthy Ashby encouraging the crowd that “we must become more of a united people of these United States” with the lyrics,
If it’s magic
Why can’t we make it everlasting
Like the lifetime of the sun
It will leave no heart undone
For there’s enough for everyone
This was followed by the one-two punch of “As” and “Another Star” the latter’s salsa beat punctuated by Oakland native’s Sheila E.’s raucous percussion at which point more than thirty performers covered the stage in praise and celebration. There were generous encores and fun after the main set, but I could have left then, feeling as full of joy as after any concert I’ve seen. Stevie took us to church that night, reminding us it’s possible to live in harmony, that there is more to do in our lives, more people to touch, and more to give. Until the day that is the day we are no more. Love, in.