“Would you still be happy, in 2015, living in village ghetto land?” This is the question that Stevie Wonder posed during the song of the same name at his second—technically third—go around in the District with his Songs in the Key of LifePerformance” tour. Like the rest of the LP, as resurrected for modern culture and an audience forty years after its release, the song asks questions about how life is lived today. And indeed, it also asks this question: In the eleven months since Stevie Wonder last brought his “Songs in the Key of Life Performance” tour to the District, what has changed?
The show has changed a little. Like any artist on tour, the rigid setlists of the early legs give way to more freewheeling shows in the later stops on the road. Stevie, of course, had limited wiggle room due to the nature of the show he was playing; one can’t exactly scrap the order of the album when one is playing a full album show. But this time, as the Motown musician his magnificent orchestra of lively musicians took the Verizon Center’s stage this past Saturday, Stevie treated the show much more like a “performance” rather than a live reproduction of the Songs in the Key of Life album alone. His background singers belted out snippets of the Miracles, Porgy & Bess, En Vogue and others as part of an extension of “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” He extended the DJ Tick Tick Boom segment he humorously invoked at the end of his show last time, using an onstage mixing board to call up samples of a multitude of his menagerie of hits, even playing a mostly complete rendition of “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” in the encore. The guests also changed. Where last time the stage was graced by the presence of Ms. India.Arie, this time Stevie brought out original-Songs collaborator Greg Phillinganes for the always lovely “Isn’t She Lovely,” and legendary singer/guitarist Jonathan Butler for a more gospel-inflected “As.”
What has changed more is the ever declining political and cultural climate of our country. Just five months ago, Baltimore was rocked by the death of Freddie Gray and town-splitting riots. And, just twenty four hours before the concert began, the nation was hit by the news of another mass shooting that claimed the lives of ten too many Americans in Oregon. Yet Stevie Wonder, as undoubtedly saddened as he was by yet another tragedy in our country, did not make the concert a memorial or a mournful tribute; in a radical act, for this day and age, he continued on with his music in its original form and meaning. Stevie Wonder carried on in a celebration of life.
The one thing that has not changed in the last eleven months in the music—the songs, the words, the melodies—of Songs in the Key of Life and that is precisely why this “Songs in the Key of Life Performance” tour is the music experience that DC, the rest of America, and the rest of the world needs right now. Love is in need of as much love today as it was in 1976 when the double LP originally hit record store shelves, and “Village Ghetto Land” is still a strongly visibly and palpable reality in 2015 America. One could cynically assert that Stevie Wonder has been singing the same songs for forty years, and the world hasn’t changed; why should he still sing them? Today, when we are numb to violence and constantly fight about whose reality is worse both online and in rally’s, the act of celebrating life and the human experience is a radical act of protest; and it is the kind of radical protest that only a radiant human being such as Stevie Wonder could accomplish.
Winston Churchill once remarked in 1942, as he flew over the heartland of America, that it was hard to imagine that this was a country at war. Similarly, if one stood in the Verizon Center on October 3rd, it would be hard to imagine that the future Stevie calls for in his music is so far out of reach. Even when he and the big band weren’t strictly playing numbers from the Songs in the Key of Life album, they were playing songs in the key of Life; because that it the music that Stevie Wonder makes. For almost four hours, Stevie, the band, and the audience joined together in singing the music of life, and celebrating the simple joys of living. Perhaps if more came to these shows, then so many more of us would start singing of tomorrow and singing of love and that “someday sweet love will reign throughout this world of ours.”