Golden Wonder show
Sunday 28 May 1995
Steveland Morris was in a skittish mood on Tuesday. Even though he described the concert - one of two in aid of the Royal National Institute for the Blind - as a momentous event, it didn't stop him joking, gargling a tune with a swig of bottled water or trying out his cockney accent. "I know it's the Royal Albert Hall and I respect that, but tonight's a little different,'' he grinned. "Tonight this is Stevie's house."
In fact the show was a lot better suited to the Albert Hall than most pop concerts are. It was the Last Night of the Proms with a funky bass line: Wonder's sheer, infectious determination to have fun had the well- dressed gala punters loosening their bow ties and clapping along. "The sighted people are rushing it," he chided as he conducted them. "You have no excuse. You can see my hands."
Two drummers kept the beat as effervescent as Wonder's mood - one of them spinning his sticks so energetically that he was lucky he didn't take off - three backing singers bopped, and one song segued into the next without losing momentum. Supplementing the Prom feel was an orchestra in black tie, but even behind their perspex screens they were not safe from Wonder's puckishness. "Give me a saxophone solo," he'd command, and the sax players would shoot startled expressions at each other that said, "You do it! No, you do it!" They'd just about agree on which of them should be playing when Wonder's nimble harmonica would interrupt and show them how it's done.
His material may not be as thrilling as it was, but Wonder remains a superb musician - whether slicing effortlessly through the band with his acrobatic voice, laying down a squelchy riff on the keyboard or sky-blue grand piano, or clicking and wailing and sighing on the harmonica. There were times when you would be entranced by this expertise only to realise a minute or two later that it was being used on some anaemic piano ballad.
Even so, the selections from his latest album Conversation Peace (Motown) were, if not high points, certainly fair to middling points, particularly "Cold Chill", with its kicking swingbeat bigger and raunchier than it is on record. He was, perhaps, rather too tubby for all that pelvic thrusting, though. It's a while since he's been Little Stevie Wonder.
Towards the end of a show approaching Springsteenesque duration, he took us back to the golden Wonder years: "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours", "You Are the Sunshine of My Life", a monstrously funky "Superstition", all with a zeal that matched that of the audience. It was Stevie's house and the roof was raised.
Songwriters take note. If you want to sell a composition to Celine Dion, glance at her setlist from the Hammersmith Apollo on Thursday for inspiration: "When I Fall in Love", "The Power of Love", "The Colour of My Love", "Can't Help Falling in Love", and, for the polyglots among you, "Pour que tu m'aimes encore encore", which proved that bland, production-line pop is the same in any language.
It's vapid stuff - soft-rock anthems, white soul ballads, all with elephantine choruses and jolting key changes. It's rendered only slightly less painful because Dion can hold a note for decades, and if she sang the shipping forecast it would drip with emotion. She's the queen of Canadian pop, seeing off rivals like ... well, all those other Canadian female vocalists whose names escape me.
On Top of the Pops Dion seems a classy diva. Onstage, she was an ugly duckling who has grown up to be an ostrich. In her black suit she looked like Stan Laurel; she did a jerky, gangly dance like Jarvis Cocker; and she talked like Ernie from Sesame Street.
And God, did she talk. She gushed about how she loves Britain, how she loves us, how she loves her record company. Bonnie Langford is a venomous bitch in comparison. A fan presented her with a cuddly dalmation and she waved it at one of the keyboard players. "Ruff, ruff!" she said. When she sang "Beauty and the Beast", the title track of the Disney film, she hugged her backing singer mid-verse.
The audience believes all this schlock because, somehow, Dion believes it too. She left primary school to become a professional singer under the guidance of manager Rene Angelil, a mere 26 years her elder, and now her husband. (Anyone caught whistling "Beauty and the Beast" at the wedding was ejected from the church.) Like Michael Jackson, she seems not to distinguish between real life and showbiz, and this gives her the capacity to be sincere when she thanks the band, the lighting men, the sound men, and the promoters. Canada may be famous for its syrup but there's only so much of the stuff that you can take.
Mudhoney subvert the traditional grunge-song structure (quiet bit / loud bit / quiet bit / loud bit) with their own variation: quiet bit / loud bit / loud bit / loud bit, sometimes omitting the quiet bit at the start. From the same plaid-clad Seattle gene pool as Nirvana, they prefer jokey cynicism to existential angst, as demonstrated by their new album My Brother the Cow (Warner) and its brattish jabs at the music business, and, they assure us, absolutely not at Courtney Love in particular.
Live at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Friday, their irreverence was drowned out by what sounded like an aeroplane landing. Both their stage show and their audience went for that slacker can't-be-bothered look. If Mudhoney are going to play thrash metal they could at least spice it up with studded leather and the ritual abuse of small animals.
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