It was 1976, and Songs in the Key of Life made a big impression on ten-year-old me. I played that cassette tape over and over again, mostly grooving to the radio hits. But some of the deeper cuts cut to the quick as well, songs of racial tension and celebration of people that I, in my sheltered suburban life, had not encountered.
It was the bicentennial year, and I’d spent a lot of time singing 18th century patriotic songs in elementary school. Contrast that to “Village Ghetto Land,” with its orchestral strings and view of urban poverty, and “Black Man,” with its litany of non-white achievement. Perhaps even more striking, the album (a DOUBLE album! I’m pretty sure it was the first double album I owned) really immersed me in R&B for the first time, and “I Wish” was my first intro to funk.
Last night at Madison Square Garden, the whole album was spread before us like a banquet. Stevie and his remarkable band (and string orchestra) wove a brilliant tapestry of nostalgia and novelty that made Songs in the Key of Life come alive. With a few exceptions, the songs were played in order, with Stevie moving between his keyboards or standing to sing accompanied by the orchestra. The incomparable India Arie was introduced early on in the show and joined Stevie on several songs, most exceptionally “Saturn” and “Ngiculela/Es Una Historia/I Am Singing.” She was a sparkling addition to the stage and the bond between the two of them was clear and delightful.
Even with such a large backing group, Stevie’s performance felt both immense and intimate. He was all there, choking up with real emotion during “Joy Inside My Pain” and “If It’s Magic” (which featured the actual harp track from the album, as a tribute to the performer who passed away shortly after its release), turning playful as he called out to the audience between numbers or admitted that he had messed up lyrics, throwing himself, body and soul, into playing the keyboards and the harmonica. That gorgeous, lush, melodic voice was all there too, filling the space, moving all around, pulling us in and holding us.
One of the many beauties of Songs in the Key of Life is the wide variety of musical styles it incorporates. Straight-up R&B, funk, jazz fusion, swing, Latin/Caribbean, rock, orchestral, gospel, and glorious love ballads, there is so much there, are all were in attendance at the show. Yet it all flowed, the texture of the pieces came together, joyous and jubilant. Being thirty-eight years older than I was in 1976, I can appreciate the themes and lyrics of the songs more fully, of course, and that added so much to my perspective of them all.
It was like Stevie presented us with a huge treasure chest, and one by one, brought out priceless gems that were familiar, but fascinating all over again. It was like he was saying, “Here, remember this? Look at it with fresh eyes and listen to it with fresh ears. All that has transpired between the first time I gave you this, and now, touches how you see and hear it.”
The second set opened with Stevie introducing again his daughter, who is also a backup singer, as the inspiration for “Isn’t She Lovely?.” He then introduced his youngest daughter (not counting the one that is still in utero, who was there inside her mother). It was a charming image, the eldest daughter holding her littlest half-sister and dancing to the song that she inspired.
Stevie then turned reflective, urging the audience to work towards love, making the world a better place (specifically, through gun control), and he got very emotional as he introduced a family who had lost their child in the Sandy Hook massacre.
The set finished up with my personal favorite “As,” which was everything I’d hoped it would be live, and “Another Star.” We were then surprised and gratified that that was not the end. Stevie and the band treated us to “Superstition,” which had everyone in the crowd up and dancing, reveling in the tremendous performance we had all just experienced.
The legacy of Songs in the Key of Life is well-established. How exceptional that its live performance could highlight how relevant the songs still are, and the world-class caliber of Stevie Wonder on the opening night of his historical tour. I feel privileged to have been there.