Rev. Stevie's Vision
By Jon Pahl
The reviews are in, and Stevie Wonder remains America's preeminent gospel preacher in-the-guise-of-a-songwriter/singer-and-transcendent-musical-genius. I recently caught his current tour when it stopped here in Philly. It was simply sublime. Wonder is touring for the first time in a dozen years. The reviews have been remarkably consistent, nearly rapturous, and with good reason.
Joel Selvin in The San Francisco Chronicle (August 28) called the show "an outpouring."
Erik Pedersen in The Hollywood Reporter (September 7) summed it up as "a joyful celebration."
And Ben Ratliff in The New York Times (November 19) put it well, if a bit stiffly. Wonder specializes, he suggested, in "secular music with gospel rhetoric."
But the performance I saw drew its power from more than rhetoric. This was ritual. Wonder was a preacher. And the created world--with all its sounds and sorrows, was both his congregation and the source of a profound vision. For one who is physically blind, he surely sees an awful lot.
The religious themes are unmistakable in Wonder's music once you start paying attention. I first took note of the spiritual and political potential of Stevie Wonder in 1981. I was a young seminarian on an "urban immersion" trip to Detroit. The family I was staying with had tickets to Stevie's concert at Cobo Hall, and managed to snare me an extra. It was the night before Wonder was due to go to Washington DC to lobby Congress in support of a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. It was also a night I'll never forget, and for which I've always been grateful. Stevie's last song that night was, fittingly, his tribute to Dr. King, "Happy Birthday." One-by-one the band members left the stage, but Wonder remained at his piano singing the chorus over and over again. Gradually, the entire crowd joined him.
And then Stevie himself was led off the stage. We all kept singing. We sang as we walked down the steps of Cobo Hall. We sang as we exited into the corridors. We sang all the way out to our cars in the parking lots. We sent Stevie Wonder to Congress on a wave of song. After that, I never doubted that the holiday would be established.
I have more doubt, now, more than twenty-five years later, that Wonder's broader and deeper vision will come true. But it won't be for lack of effort or skill on his part. And it won't be for lack of clarity from him about how to get there.
His last album (2005) was entitled "A Time 4 Love." And although he didn't play a single cut from it during this tour--astonishingly, love was the beginning, middle, means, and end of the show. This was a God-tinged love-fest. It was a demonstration of how liturgy can help us transcend fear and self-interest through the collective, embodied power of love. It was a call to respond to the wonder of love with some loving acts of our own.
Wonder began the night by invoking his mother--Lula Mae Hardaway, who died last year (in fact, he's currently working on a new album, "The Gospel Inspired by Lula.") After her death, she spoke to him from the world beyond, Wonder claimed, telling him: "Boy, you need to get your ass out there."
The reason became clear in his first tune: "Love's in Need of Love Today." A chorus of back-up singers--including his daughter, Aisha, began the song with a lilting lament, backed by a soft piano and light rhythm section. The verses then laid down the main point of the song, of the concert, and of Rev. Stevie's vision:
Love's in need of love today/
Don't delay, send yours in right away/
Hate's going 'round, breaking many hearts/
Stop it, please, before it's gone too far.
After an excursion into the funky "Too High," which I interpreted as a commentary less on drug use than on the American empire and its "superficial paradise," Wonder returned to the theme of love again, asking the question: "Is This a Vision in My Mind?"The song featured acoustic guitars and a quiet bass, as he sang in a plaintive minor key:
People hand in hand/
Have I lived to see the milk and honey land/
Where hate's a dream and love forever stands/
Or is this a vision in my mind?
That this vision has a social edge became apparent not only during "Living [Just Enough] for the City," his 1973 critique of police brutality and racism, but when he broke into a vamp and shouted, in his best preacher's voice: "I can't believe it! Here we are in 2007, and we're still practicing the same bad habits that we had centuries ago. We love the God that we serve . . . but we still ask our God to give us the right to kill. . . . It's unacceptable. I can't believe it!"
Later, during a call and response on "Ribbon in the Sky," yet another ode to love, Wonder added the erotic as one way to overcome hate and violence. He invited first the women, then the men in the audience to join him in singing on various choruses, if one can call them that. As we did, we celebrated human passion in ways that evoked laughter across the Wachovia Center. It was a vivid demonstration of the embodied truth his music insistently conveyed, like a "higher ground" or "innervision" to which he was calling us.
An extended series of tunes in the middle of the concert celebrated various other kinds of love. "Overjoyed" invited listeners to wonder whether "if you would believe/You too might be/Overjoyed." "If It's Magic," set to the heavenly sound of solo harp, asked "why can't it be everlasting/like the sun that always shines/like the poet's endless rhyme/like the galaxies and time?" And "You and I," a truly beautiful love song set to an acoustic piano with a synthesizer backing, imagined how "In my mind/we can conquer the world/in love, you and I." During this tune, seated at his piano, Wonder broke down in tears. If he was recalling his Mom--to whom he has long given the credit for his courage and convictions, other audience members, including me, cried as we felt our own loves and losses.
But along with the moments of personal pathos and social critique came a whole lot of straight-out, fun-filled funk. "Don't You Worry About a Thing" framed the gospel in a Latin form. "Sir Duke" remembered Duke Ellington and how his "Music knows it is and always will be." And "Superstition" simply slammed home the point: "When you believe in things/that you don't understand/then you suffer. Superstition ain't the way."
But the night was, first and last, about love. The final tune, "As" has always inspired me with its beautiful Fender Rhodes piano line, gentle bass line (Wonder's bassist, Nathan Watts is brilliant), and hopeful words:
As around the sun the earth knows she's revolving/
And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May/
Just as hate knows loves the cure/
You can rest your mind assured/
That I'll be loving you, always.
As he left the stage, Stevie Wonder told us, again and again, that he loved us. And throughout the night, he asked us to love each other. It's a vision born of suffering, channeled into music sublime. And if believers around the world took the same truths from their own faiths with half the seriousness, half the grace, and half the beauty that this bard has done, we might actually find some higher ground, well beyond rhetoric, indeed.