Who else but Stevie Wonder could turn most of Chicago's Grant Park into a giant dance floor?
Marking his first performance at the Taste of Chicago Festival in 20 years, Wonder delighted 78,000 fans on June 28th, treating them to major hits, a few covers, and obscure album tracks. Ranging from introspective to playful to celebratory, Wonder inspired the audience with his infectious joy and powerful voice.
Wonder kicked off the show with four tracks from 1980's Hotter Than July album. “As If You Read My Mind” got an extra boost from a new saxophone and trumpet section, and the crowd cheered when Wonder picked up the harmonica to play a solo. “Master Blaster (Jammin')” brought the audience to its feet; when he sang “Everyone is feeling pretty/It's hotter than July,” the concert transformed into one large block party. He rounded out the Hotter Than July portion of the concert with “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” and “All I Do,” playing them back-to-back as on the record. The audience sang a good deal of the verses on the latter song, proving that this crowd knew every lyric to every Stevie Wonder song.
He then delved into the Songs in the Key of Life album with “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” featuring beautiful keyboard work. Again, he seemed to pick songs to fit the day's weather; “I see us in the park/Strolling the summer days/Of imaginings in my head,” he crooned, the sun shining down on the adoring audience.
Changing gears, he added a vocoder effect to his voice while singing “Have You Seen Her,” which he stated he wanted to try out just for the Taste of Chicago. He then transitioned from humorous to spiritual with “Higher Ground,” again bringing fans to their feet.
After playing an extended jazz instrumental (spotlighting the musical chops of his impressive big band), he segued into “Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing,” even speaking a bit of the beginning gibberish from the original recording. Improbably, considering the size of the venue and crowd, he managed to retain the intimacy of “Visions,” featuring delicate piano and guitar riffs. Interestingly he added a rock guitar solo toward the end, making “Visions” rise to a loud crescendo. Surprise guest Rev. Jesse Jackson walked onstage at this point, lauding Wonder for his contributions to various social causes. This provided the perfect introduction to “Living for the City,” which he dedicated to “anyone who has experienced prejudice.” Watching everyone—black, white, young, and old—dance and sing along gave credence to Wonder's message of unity.
Returning to a gentler vibe, Wonder again dipped into the Innervisions album with “Golden Lady,” where Wonder showed his voice has lost none of its power and emotion. He also treated the audience to a sneak preview of his next album, Through the Eyes of Wonder. “Keep Fooling Yourself Baby Girl” had a nice jazz feel to it, perhaps hinting at the possible tone of the entire album.
Daughter Aisha Morris sang backup on most of the songs, and sang a jazz-inflected number. Her clear, whispery voice was pleasant and charmed the crowd. Before she returned to the backup singer area, Wonder serenaded her with “Isn't She Lovely,” which he wrote about Aisha as a baby. She beamed but seemed slightly embarrassed; the crowd seemed enchanted by the duo, even joining in on some of the lyrics.
After asking the audience if anyone had ever made love to one of his songs, he launched into his ultra-romantic “Ribbon in the Sky,” a favorite of the crowd. The romance continued with In Square Circle's “Overjoyed,” a ballad that has gained popularity 23 years after its initial release. Rocketing back in time, Wonder performed a particular “Chicago favorite”– “Hey Love,” a 60s hit that delighted the older members of the audience. Other longtime favorites followed, such as “My Cherie Amour” (the audience sang much of the lyrics) and “Signed Sealed Delivered,” where Wonder's voice sounded exactly like the original recording.
Returning to Songs in the Key of Life, perpetual favorites “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” turned the entire venue into a party, with young and old dancing in the aisles. Although the band played these classics admirably, the horn section could have been bigger to really flesh out the crucial horn parts. Curiously Wonder threw in an obscure number from 1987's Characters, “My Eyes Don't Cry.” Lacking a kazoo, he asked the audience to sing that part.
Returning to more familiar fare, he once again inspired the audience to dance with 1982's “Do I Do.” At one point he even stood on the piano bench, directing the audience to sing and clap along. After jumping off the bench, he played the megahit “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” followed by “I Was Made to Love Her,” again showing how little his voice has changed over the years.
By the time he launched into perennial favorite “Superstition,” the entire audience was grooving to the beat. “I've got to go home!” Wonder exclaimed, but fans were in no hurry to have him conclude the show. Backed by a top-band (featuring superior bassist Nathan Watts), Wonder rewarded longtime fans with an almost three-hour performance that barely scratched the surface of his expansive catalog. Yet the ebullient Wonder barely broke a sweat, full of energy from start to finish. Judging by the crowd reaction, he accomplished his goal: bringing joy and unity to a diverse crowd. Here's hoping he won't wait another 20 years to return to the Taste of Chicago.