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At White House Show, Truly a Night of Wonder

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Stevie Wonderful!" exclaimed Tony Bennett.

An overjoyed Stevie Wonder beamed, the Motown music legend having just jumped onstage to provide an ad-libbed coda to Bennett's rendition of "For Once in My Life." President Obama and the rest of the crowd, packed inside the East Room of the White House, cheered.

For those about to sing, the commander in chief salutes you!

Wonder went to the White House last night to receive the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and a full-blown concert broke out. As George and Martha Washington peered over the temporary stage from their portraits, the stately East Room was transformed into the world's most exclusive music hall (roughly 150 invited guests; not a scalper in sight) as Wonder headlined his own gala coronation-cum-concert.

Bennett joined pop titan Paul Simon, country belter Martina McBride, jazz diva Diana Krall, R&B songstress India.Arie and hip-hop star Will.I.Am, among others, in paying tribute to Wonder by performing songs from his deep catalogue. ("The most accomplished Stevie Wonder cover band ever assembled," Obama joked.)

But the star was Wonder himself: The 58-year-old soul singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist sang five songs -- much to the delight of the president and the first lady, both of whom spoke of an abiding love for Wonder's music.

Michelle Obama noted that the first album she ever bought was "Talking Book," a 1972 classic by Wonder, "a man whose music and lyrics I fell in love with when I was a little girl." She added that she and the president chose Wonder's "You and I" for the first dance at their 1992 wedding.

(The first couple held hands when McBride sang a somewhat soporific "You and I" last night. The Nashville star saved her plodding performance when she finally remembered that she has a big, elastic voice and sent the song skyward -- as Mrs. Obama shook her head approvingly.)

In presenting Wonder with the Gershwin Prize, the president called the singer's music "the soundtrack of my youth" and noted that it provided him with "peace and inspiration, especially in difficult times." It also gave him an in with the future first lady. The president said: "I think it's fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me. We might not have married. The fact that we agreed on Stevie was part of the essence of our courtship."

Again, Wonder beamed. Then he teased, saying: "President and Mrs. Obama, I'm so excited to know that I was a part of . . ." He stopped. "I needn't say more." The audience broke out in laughter.

But mostly, it was a night for breaking out in song.

Simon, the recipient of the first Gershwin Prize, in 2007, deconstructed "If It's Magic," turning it into a quiet, quavering acoustic folk song. The rising jazz star Esperanza Spalding -- blowout Afro, upright bass, adventurous arrangement -- gave "Overjoyed" a hip lounge makeover. (Named in honor of George and Ira Gershwin, the prize was established in 2007 to honor an American composer or performer, making it the pop music corollary to the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.)

Mary Mary sent the funk of "Higher Ground" skyward. Krall went in the other direction with "Blame It on the Sun," which she performed at the grand piano as a blue-hued ballad. Comedian-turned-TV host-turned singer Wayne Brady, in the booking of his lifetime, sang "All I Do" and didn't embarrass himself.

The opera singer Anita Johnson unleashed her pure, gleaming soprano on "I Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer." Will.I.Am matched raggedy vocals with the infectious, insistent island rhythm of "Master Blaster (Jammin')."

There was no dancing on this night, though; too many PBS cameras moving through the aisles. (Plus, Vice President Biden, who was sitting in the front row by Simon, doesn't do dancing.) Locally, the concert will be broadcast tonight at 8 on WETA and Maryland Public Television.

Joined by a full band, including backing vocalists, Wonder opened the concert with the swinging funk of "Sir Duke." But it was his closing, a four-song mini-set, that truly threatened to bring down the White House, particularly when Wonder dived into the stomping clavinet-driven funk of "Superstition."

He also offered a flashback to the trail with "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," one of Obama's campaign theme songs. Last night, the song had Librarian of Congress James H. Billington clapping in double-time. (At least on the first take; Wonder asked for a redo, the blind musician joking that he'd been looking the wrong way.)

After performing the new "All About the Love Again," Wonder called an audible to end the encore. "Go to B! Go to B!" he squealed while playing the opening lines of another of his classics, "Isn't She Lovely."

"A true American master," President Obama proclaimed.

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