ACL Last Night: The One, The Only, Stevie Wonder
Austin City Limits Music Festival
Bud Light Stage, Zilker Park, Austin
September 17, 2011
Stevie Wonder says we're all part of the same family. Saturday night at Austin City Limits, he had about 45,000 (we're guessing) Jesus children of America in the palms of his well-exercised hands. However many people it was, Wonder's audience took up the radia of the Google+ stage hundreds of yards away, as well as the hordes closer into his own Bud Light Stage.
Wonder came onstage gradually, stealthily emerging with a keytar as his band - which was a small orchestra, really - warmed up and then worked over a cheerful vamp that was part funk lick, part nursery rhyme, and eventually resolved into Wonder's old Motown pal Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)."
One of the most gifted musicians on the planet left little doubt that he was mostly making it up as he went along. "What's the second verse?" he wondered out loud in the opener, asked "What key was that in?" after "Jammin' (Master Blaster)" a couple of songs later, and confessed "I don't know all the words, but we'll work it out" before a cover of Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" that would have given Quincy Jones goosebumps.
Stevie was into it. By the second song, "My Eyes Don't Cry," he was prone on the stage, humping - for lack of a better word - his instrument. Eventually he sat down and became conductor of the great funk symphony that took up the first part of the set, each song a different movement showcasing a different part of the orchestra: Congas and timbales on "My Eyes," guitars on "The Way You Make Me Feel," the horns and four-piece backup vocal crew on "Higher Ground."
He's also a talkative dude, and very fond of leading mass singalongs like the world's coolest choir director. In their fifth, sixth or seventh minute, many songs spiraled into Wonder either telling the crowd what was on his mind - lots of talk about how we're all in this together, and need to act like it, or how Barack Obama needs a break from all the "bullshit" he's been dealing with. Or he'd introduce something like "Living for the City" with "I never want to have to write this song again."
Other times Wonder would urge the audience to join in the lyrics, take over, or back him up. Most of the time, they didn't need much prompting. The expressions Rocks Off saw during the Jackson cover, when we were relatively close up front, near the soundboard, were about the nearest to pure joy we've ever seen (and felt) at any musical performance, anywhere.
It did seem to falter once, during "Do I Do," but once Wonder seemed to realize it, he steered the band into "For Once In My Life," breaking out the sweet harmonica for the first time, and everyone was all smiles again.