Calling Festival - Stevie Wonder, London, Jun 29 2014
As a lifelong fan of Stevie Wonder's recordings from the 1960s and 70s (plus the odd gem from the largely best-averted 1980s), I have avoided checking him out live over the years, for reasons I can't fully explain. Perhaps it's that thing where you're so into something that you just don't want to be let down by some potential horror that it's all gone terribly wrong over the years and you don't want your love for the stuff tainted by a bad experience.
And so it was, heading down to Clapham Common on a sunny summer's afternoon to see Stevie, I had mixed feelings of seeing the man himself - the legend, the "genius", as he was originally known back in the early days - and of the possibility that the pedestal upon which I'd put him all these years would crumble away rapidly over the course of a couple of hours, due to the passing of time and the conceivable decline in musical character.
After queuing for beers for what felt like an eternity, my companion and I found a good spot and waited with trepidation for things to kick off. Eventually, and without any fanfare, a band gradually began to assemble onstage beginning a jam which morphed sneakily into a very slick and tight cover of Marvin Gaye's classic 'How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)'. This band were precisely the kind you'd expect Stevie to have backing him these days. They had 'LA session dudes' written all over them but they demonstrated enough playfulness and swing to make it work.
Eventually, Stevie appeared and walked slowly to his stack of keys, to much uproarious applause. As soon as he began to sing it was clear that his vocal talents had not been diminished by the years one bit. His voice was simply stunning and he greeted the crowd warmly before getting stuck into the hits. And the hits just kept coming.
It's astounding when you go and see someone with a life's body of work such as Stevie's because each time a new tune kicks in, you say, 'Oh yeah! I completely forgot about 'My Cherie Amour'/'I Wish'/Master Blaster' etc' and this was one such occasion. There weren't many surprises in terms of the setlist. Stevie clearly knows what his audience wants and expects to hear and he didn't disappoint. He threw in a couple of wild cards - 'Maybe Your Baby' and Bobby Womack's 'If You Think You're Lonely Now', for example - but generally they were brief diversions in a set of wall-to-wall hits which surprisingly included 'I Just Called To Say I Love You'.
Overall, Stevie came over as a guy who is enjoying the autumn of his musical career. No time was wasted with new material or attempts to reinvent himself. This was pure nostalgia cabaret delivered with class and style - and bizarrely, Richie Sambora joining in on 'Superstition'!
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