Stevie Wonder has been called a "musical genius" since the beginning of his career, when at age 12 he topped the pop charts with the electrifying swinger "Fingertips." Over the years, the Motown legend (the only one who has stayed with the label since its halcyon days in Detroit in the 1960s) has proven over and over the tag is no hype.
On stage has always been the best way to experience the wonder of his musical brilliance. And at a sold-out, nearly three-hour concert Sunday night at Pier Six Pavilion, Wonder showed that the talent hasn't diminished a bit.
For the past month, he has been crisscrossing the country on a 13-city tour dubbed "A Wonder Summer's Night," playing intimate, mostly outdoor venues with no opening act. (Something he doesn't need, anyway.) It's his first tour in 12 years. As Wonder explained in a monologue at the start of the show, he was inspired to hit the road again after his mother died last May.
"It was because of you I was able to give her a life she probably would have never had," Wonder told the capacity crowd as his daughter and backup singer, Aisha Morris, stood by his side. "I wanted to come and personally thank you."
Afterward, he opened his set with "Love's in Need of Love Today," the first song on his sprawling, acclaimed 1976 album, Songs in the Key of Life. Supported by a sharp 11-piece band, which included three percussionists, Wonder performed faithful renditions of hits and fan favorites.
For the better part of his set, though, he was stuck in 1973, singing all but two songs from arguably his finest album, Innervisions, released that year. "Living for the City," "Higher Ground" and "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" - the big hits from the LP - were given rousing workouts, powered by Wonder's robust, mahogany voice. He more or less sounds the way he did in the '70s.
Although the singer-songwriter certainly doesn't look the same (he has packed on the pounds in his years off the road), Wonder still performs with boundless energy and can be unpredictable, much to the dismay of his band.
During the festive "Do I Do," he stopped singing for a moment and climbed on top of the grand piano. There, he stood and resumed singing at full-throttle, throwing in a few hip gyrations as his backup singers and a stagehand stood around the piano with looks that seemed to say, "Please, please don't fall."
Before that mild stunt, Wonder was stationed at the piano and the synthesizers, delivering full versions of such perennial wedding songs as "Ribbon in the Sky," "You and I" and "Overjoyed."
He also managed to slip in some fiery political commentary. Toward the end of the moving "Visions," he lashed out against the media's coverage of celebrity shenanigans (namely O.J. Simpson) while seeming to ignore Jena 6. He sounded downright angry, even letting an expletive slip.
But the mood lightened soon afterward as Wonder jammed such pop-funk classics as "Superstition" and "That Girl." The aisles swelled with dancing baby boomers.
Before Wonder left the stage, Mayor Sheila Dixon and Sen. Verna Jones presented the star with citations, proclaiming Sunday as "Stevie Wonder Day."
After that brief intermission (the only one of the night), Wonder sat back down at the piano, launched into "As," and the party was on again.