Christopher Victorio Stevie Wonder at Outside Lands.
Stevie Wonder, in theory, is an American artistic treasure. He's more than our Beatles or Rolling Stones; he's our Dickens or Dalí: a figure of impassable recognition, discussion, talent, love, and national pride. In theory.
In practice, however, Stevie Wonder is an experience.
Less than three minutes after Stevie Wonder takes the main stage on the final night of San Francisco's Outside Lands festival, keytar in hand and that beaming, always-loving smile of his worn proudly, he decides that it's time for the first singalong of the night. It was one of many. Where other musicians would wait for the middle of their set to lead the crowd in singing, when the School of Wonder is in session (as he calls it) you're not allowed to simply watch.
At first, the San Francisco crowd greets the political portion of the School of Wonder much more warmly than the participation portion. That is, the crowd hasn't quite realized the extent to which tonight's headmaster will make sure that they sing and dance and get the entire Stevie Wonder experience. He isn't here simply to entertain us, but to make sure we're entertained, full of his universal love that is his gospel to spread.
And spread it does. His own songs are part of the New American Songbook, and his cover selections of are big a part of who Stevie Wonder is. His Motown selections are, of course, a nod to his time at that legendary label. His other cover selection, "The Way You Make Me Feel," is a dedication to his friend Michael Jackson. Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do" comes with a story about listening to the song as a kid. For a legendary presence like Wonder, songs that mark different eras and people in his life are one and the same as the undisputed classics of New American Songbook. In the School of Wonder, we don't sing the Americana version of "Oh Susanna" and "Home on the Range," but "My Girl" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)."
If the San Francisco crowd was its usual reticent self for the first singalong, the reluctance is all gone by the end of the first quarter of the set, when Wonder leads the crowd in singing a verse of "Imagine." After that, we get it. When he says sing, you sing. If you know the words, you sing. And if you aren't dancing -- well, who isn't dancing?
The most poignant of the political lessons comes as the introduction to "Living for the City," about the difficulties of moving up in world, or even surviving, as a poor man, facing a cold, cruel, and racist America. Here, Wonder lets the bass throb for just a moment and cuts it off, saying "We can never ever let it get like this in America again." For those who never knew the world of that song, it hits deep.
The most powerful singalong comes at the end, as an encore. Wonder emerges to triumphant cheers from the crowd. It's graduation time. He wants to play a Beatles song, but can't remember how it goes, and hopes that the crowd can help. He hums a bit to himself, then calls out to his band, "E minor! A! C! G!" Suddenly they all start playing -- it's "She Loves You," but no one knows any more words than Stevie. He shuts it down, and picks a song everybody knows: "My Girl." Here he directs, without singing a single word. And there on the Polo Fields, tens of thousands of people let the American treasure know that he's taught us well. San Francisco sings, "I've got sunshine, on a cloudy day."
School of Wonder: Master Class: He's still learning how to play completely new musical instruments. He used a Marcodi Harpejji, a 24-string tapping instrument for a blues jam of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do," though he only first saw the instrument in January.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The Band: Turns on a dime. One of the tightest this side of the J.B.'s
The Highlight: Just before the last chorus of the unsurpassable "Superstition," Wonder shouts "Everybody scream!" And we do.
Setlist on next page