In a world that increasingly turns towards living a life of superlatives, there’s a growing risk of what would normally be considered great simply now mediocre. But every now and then, something comes along that proves a truly excellent product stands the test of time and quality. With Stevie Wonder’s concert at the Air Canada Centre on October 9, it was one of the few cases that proved such inimitable things still exist.
With a career that’s spanned 54 years and counting, Stevie Wonder has every reason in the world to sit back and take it easy. But that’s not in his nature and he proved it with his Toronto stop on his “Songs in the Key of Life” tour, a city he said at the beginning would be the last time he’d be visiting. This remark was met with sadness, but it quickly turned to cheers once he started professing his genuine love for Toronto, even getting the crowd to go along with a call-and-response about the Toronto Blue Jays.
Wonder started a bit late after his scheduled 8 pm start time but with his usual charm and easygoing nature, explaining it as a bit of a stomach problem, regaling the nearly-sold out crowd at the Air Canada Centre with a story from early on his career of why he’s since made bathroom breaks a priority. None of that mattered the second he sat down at his instrument of popularity — actually, the raucous cheering started the second he walked onto the dimly lit stage — and kicked off the multi-hour concert.
He’s one of the very few musicians who has the full package in spades: a gregarious and charismatic stage presence; incredible depth in skill and catalogue; a voice that spans three octaves; the ability to play multiple instruments (piano! Synthesizer! Harpeggi! Harmonica! Congas! Drums! Bass guitar! Organ! Melodica! Clavinet!); and a charm that makes everyone want to stand up and record that moment forever on their smartphones. With the second point, Wonder had to whittle down his Toronto tour stop to just the pieces on his “Songs in the Key of Life” album or else he’d have to give a concert that would stretch well into Saturday as opposed to just a two-act set that crept onto midnight.
That’s not to say his concert was vanilla or straightforward at all; rather, quite the opposite was in effect. Blowing through songs like “Sir Duke”, “Village Ghetto Land”, “Summer Soft” and “I Wish” (all from “Songs in the Key of Life”), he had a few other surprises in place. The first was a casual sing-off between himself and his backup singers, all of whom he took the time to graciously introduce and chat with at length. Next up was a two-song appearance by Allison Semmes, who plays Diana Ross in the Toronto showing of the musical “Motown”, which alternated with a stellar piano performance by Greg Phillinganes, who Wonder finally let go by saying Phillinganes had to “go be with his family”.
There have been some misses in Wonder’s career over the years (see: “Signed, Sealed and Delivered”) but tonight was most definitely not one of them. Backed by a small orchestra, multiple percussionists, guest singers and performers, and musicians talented enough in their own rights to tour on their own, Wonder hit the kind of grand slam the Jays have been sorely lacking for two games now. He’s a musician who spans genres and demographics by virtue of putting out peerlessly unrivalled music and it more than showed by the audience that was on their feet from start to finish.
And if you weren’t in attendance at the Air Canada Centre for the Stevie Wonder concert, then immediately google his next stop and go. Seriously. Even if you’re not overly familiar with his catalogue or the biggest fan of his music, his show material will — guaranteed — be one of the ones that’s talked about in a generation’s time as one of the seminal moments to experience in music history.