As good as Stevie Wonder's songs sound on his records, they were even better at the Capital Centre last night. On record he strives for total control and absolute perfection. On stage he loosened up to allow more room for his band and his own spontaneous personality. In pop music, personality is always preferable to perfection.
When Wonder tries to be a one-man band on record, the rhythm is often perfuntory. On stage the rhythm pumped up by bassist Nate Watts, drummer Dennis Davis and percussionist Eart Derouen was sharp and aggressive. Up-tempo songs like "Sir Duke" and "Master Blaster" turned the Capital Centre into a throbbing dance hall.
The rest of Wonderlove -- Wonder's 14-member band -- were just as effective. On "Don't You Worry About a Thing," the four horn players kept up a swinging figure that allowed Wonder to improvise wildly at the end. On "Did I Hear You Say You Love Me," the four female singers came right back at Wonder on each vocal exchange. They upped the excitement ante each time.
Wonder also fed on the audience's energy. Like Bruce Springsteen three days earlier, Wonder as more than an entertainer to the crowd. He was a leader, and they leaped to his call, dancing in their seats, shaking fists and singing full verses from memory. Decked out in glittering gold and surrounded by keyboards. Wonder led his followers in hand-clapping, call-and-response dialogues.
Wonder began with a 20-minute medley of his earlier hits. He sang an extended version of "Let's Get Serious," which he wrote and produced for Jermaine Jackson. The song sizzled with Wonder's synthesizer solos. He interrrupted a rollicking version of "Superstitious" to trade shouted syllables with the crowd. He sent the band backstage for "You and I" and carried the song with just his subtle piano and restless voice.
Gil Scott-Heron opened the show by sing-rapping his political lyrics over a jazz-funk band. His aims were admirable, but his rhetoric lacked fresh metaphors and his tunes lacked fresh melodies.
Before he sang his version of "Happy Birthday," Wonder promoted his drive to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. Someone should start a drive for a live Stevie Wonder album.