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Stevie Wonder at the MEN Arena

Could Ben Patey's musical hero live up to his expectations?

Published on September 10th 2008.

Stevie Wonder at the MEN Arena

In some ways, going to watch a musical great is a huge risk. Firstly, there’s the danger that they may not live up to your incredibly high expectations. There's also a worry that if they do perform even to a smidgen of their ability, it may turn you into a musical snob for the rest of your days, reluctant to listen to anything that fails to reach that melodious zenith.

When Wonder did extend the outros, it wasn’t for indulgence but rather for audience participation. And we didn’t need much encouragement. The men were given special parts. The women were given special parts. The parts were brought together. We were all making sweet music together. We were great.

When you're off to one of Stevie Wonder's gigs, the risks increase tenfold. A true legend in the unembellished sense of the word, he could embarrass most musicians with his eyes closed. Ok, Ok. Not the greatest analogy but you get the drift. He's good.

So here I was at the MEN arena and somewhere within the building was my biggest hero of all time. Stevie Wonder – the first step on my path to music fixation.

The tide of fervour created by the Mexican waves finally brought down the lights in the arena and a huge band walked out, with Wonder clad in traditional African robes, the trademark braids down to his waist.'Master Blaster (Jammin’)' immediately had everyone up on their feet and there were loud cheers when Wonder manipulated the lyrics to show support for Barack Obama.

“We want the world to come together, starting with the USA,” sang Wonder, reminding us that behind the great artist also lies a great humanitarian, a man who has used his enormous talent to crusade against apartheid and world hunger and who has campaigned tirelessly for racial harmony.Unfortunately, the anthem for racial harmony wasn’t to feature on the billing. Not unless Sir Paul was waiting in the wings.

Another of Wonder’s past duetting partners, Michael Jackson, once provided backing vocals on the delectable 'All I Do (is think about you)' which Wonder delivered a knock-out version of. One of the backing singers given responsibility for covering Jackson’s parts was his daughter Aisha Morris – the subject matter of the baby celebratory 'Isn’t She Lovely'. Morris later sang a solo accompanied by her father. We all agreed that she was indeed bloody lovely.

My main worry before the gig was that Wonder may have chosen to over-elaborate on some of his outros, something musicians tend to do to keep themselves interested when they’ve played the same song a million times. However, the extended ending I did want to hear was the one to 'All I Do'. If you usually like a bit of disparagement in your music reviews, you may as well stop reading now. Because that’s where my criticism begins and ends. Yes, the outro in one song wasn’t quite long enough.

“Not that I’m complaining,” said one man in the toilets after the concert. “But he left a lot of songs out tonight. That’s how fantastic his back catalogue is.”

Yet, in a set that lasted nearly three hours, he managed to cram in all the big hitters from the likes of Innervisions and the seminal Songs in the Key of Life. The vocal on 'Living for the City' was simply outstanding. In fact, on the off chance you've never listened properly to that particular song, do it today. Do it right now in fact. It's one of the best male vocals you’ll ever hear.

When Wonder did extend the outros, it wasn’t for indulgence but rather for audience participation. And we didn’t need much encouragement. The men were given special parts. The women were given special parts. The parts were brought together. We were all making sweet music together. We were great. Well, we were in the presence of greatness anyway.Of course, behind every brilliant musician there’s usually a brilliant band. And as you’d expect from a musician of Wonder’s aptitude, only the finest would be considered. They were, without question, the best band I’ve seen live, better even than Prince’s fantastic band that accompanied him on his run at the O2 Arena last year.

There were three sets of percussion alone. Three keyboards, two guitars, backing singers… you name it. Wonder even found time for a cameo on the talk box a la Roger Troutman. Youngsters may recognise Troutman’s work on 2Pac and Dr Dre’s 'California Love' while the more sophisticated musical palette may recall Zapp and Roger’s talk box- infused 'More Bounce to the Ounce'.

And talking of bouncing, whenever the crowd got too carried away with a particularly funky bass line, Wonder would bring the tempo down again, going through some of his slower hits. 'Overjoyed', 'Ribbons in the Sky', 'Knocks Me Off My Feet'... all unbelievable songs that the Robbie Williams of this world would give a right testicle for.

He signed off with a run of 'My Cherie Armour', 'Signed Sealed Delivered', 'Sir Duke', 'I Wish', 'Isn't She Lovely', 'Do I Do', 'I Just Called to Say I Love You' (cue thousands of people reaching for their mobiles), 'Superstition' and 'As'. Not bad huh? In fact, as a back catalogue goes, it’s pretty much unassailable. Kanye West said of his own work in 2005, “I’m not trying to compete with what’s out there now. I’m really trying to compete with Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. It sounds musically blasphemous to say something like that, but why not set that as your bar?”

The likes of Kanye, and anyone else for that matter, can look at this gig and consider the bar well and truly raised. Beat that.

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