Wonder’s performance of “Songs in the Key of Life” (including the bonus EP “A Something’s Extra”) spanned almost the entirety of his three-hour-plus, two-set show, and he brought with him a super-sized band that included a string section. To put it into perspective, Bruce Springsteen sandwiched a performance of his masterwork, “Born to Run,” in the middle of a three-hour-plus show at the same venue in 2009 like it was just the next eight songs in the set. Wonder’s show is perhaps the most ambitious of all the classic-albums-in-their-entirety tours that have cropped up in recent years, with 21 genre-defining songs that span more than 100 minutes on record. For fans who wore out their copy of the double LP, this was like watching a favorite record come to life.
2. … but the experiment isn’t without its faults.
“Songs in the Key of Life” is meant to be heard on a loud stereo or with good headphones. That experience didn’t always translate to the live setting. Some of the ballads — “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” for one — dragged a bit and the quieter moments lost their subtlety in the arena’s occasionally muddy acoustics. (That said, “Village Ghetto Land,” with just the orchestra’s backing, was perfect, briefly transforming Verizon Center into a night at the symphony.) During the deep cuts, you could sense the audience yearning for something they could sing and dance to. It took until “As” — the album’s second-to-last track — to finally get most of the arena on their feet. And though Wonder closed the night with a rousing “Superstition” (from 1972’s “Talking Book”) the absence of “Higher Ground” left me wanting (just a teensy bit) more.
3. He loves his big band …
Though Wonder was unquestionably the star of the show, he let his massive backing band share the spotlight throughout the night. During the first set, he led six backup singers — each of whom he introduced by name and bantered with — through a bit of vocal acrobatics, challenging each singer to match his vocal runs. (And at 65, Wonder has barely lost a step). He also brought out several guests, including French musician Frederic Yonnet, perhaps the only man able to match Wonder on harmonica, and soul singer Jonathan Butler, who performed a bit of his own “Falling in Love With Jesus” before duetting with Wonder on the crowd-pleaser “As.”
4. … and the band can jam.
Some of the show’s most sonically satisfying moments came during the jam sections, when Wonder and his band would momentarily transform into a funky prog-rock band, like the instrumental “Contusion,” a composed jam before “Pastime Paradise” and the synth-y “All Day Sucker.”
5. Wonder has an alter ego, and his name is DJ Tick Tick Boom.
After a celebratory “Another Star” wrapped the album portion of the night, Wonder told the crowd he was going to press a button and become a new person: DJ Tick Tick Boom. Under this new persona, Wonder used a sampler to trigger snippets of some of his hits (much like Prince does), occasionally joining in for a brief performance that gave way to the full-band “Superstition.”
6. Wonder won’t do this in D.C. again, unless …
This is the final leg of the “Songs in the Key of Life” tour in America, but Wonder left the door open for a repeat performance for one audience in particular. “The only other time I will do this is for President Obama,” he said. The ball’s in your court, Mr. President.
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