At Constitution Hall last night Stevie Wonder sat in a rhinestone-studded robe amid eight keyboard instruments and four microphones. To his right were four wandering horn players; Wonderlove, his rock 'n' roll sextet, was behind him. Behind them was the small sea of 40 tuxedoed musicians and the National Afro-American Philharmonic Orchestra. Most important was Wonderlove, which gave many songs a bottom-powered momentum they never had on records.
On his last four albums, Wonder has played almost every instrument and sung almost every vocal himself. This has resulted in three Grammy Awards and a good shot at a fourth on the brand-new "Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants." This do-it-yourself approach to recording has created a wonderful delicacy but has sacrificed the push-and-pull of strong dance rhythms.
The dance rhythms were irresistible last night. Wonderlove's two drummers supplied constant propulsion as they rolled across the snares and crashed cymbals. They kicked songs like "Power Flower" and "For Once in My Life" out of their vinyl lethargy and into live boisterous boogie. Wonder kept chanting the choruses to "A Seed's a Star" and "I Wish" as Wonderlove pumped each tune into a feverish crescendo.
Given the strong rhythmic support, Wonder's talents were more obvious than ever. His harmonica solos on "Boogie On Reggie Woman" and "First Garden" had a clarinet lyricism. His keyboard work, whether accoustic or electric, was impeccable.
His singing was especially rich, whether rippling through a ballad like "All in Love Is Fair" or storming through a rocker like "Superstition." Wonder wrapped notes in his affecting emotional vibrato without losing power or control. His voice glided effortlessly through his far-reaching melodies.
The first half of last night's hour-late show was devoted to the "Plants" album. Fifteen of the 20 selections were played in the record's exact sequence. The first two instrumental themes were played by the orchestra as a short film of nature footage unrolled on a screen behind them. But the orchestra simply replicated the same parts Wonder had originally recorded on various synthesizers. Harnessed in simple arrangements or shut out altogether for most of the evening, this first all-black American orchestra got little chance to show what they could or couldn't do.
In the show's second half, the 29-year-old Wonder sang familiar hits from his adolescence in the '60s and his more mature work in the '70s. Many songs were transformed from the recorded versions as the rhythms were toughened and the arrangements expanded. "I'm Signed, Sealed, Delivered" gained from explosive percussion and full-throated vocals. "I Wish" was given a new, aggressive horn arrangement and soaring vocal improvisations from Wonder.
When Wonder played by himself or stuck too closely to old arrangements, his music had a tendency to slide into Muzak. But for most of the night the songs gained a new vitality from his collaboration with a band. A live album should be Wonder's very next priority.