Stevie Wonder, Abbey Road Studio, London
Sunday 13 November 2005
Recorded in the year I was born and released on the classic black-and-silver Tamla Motown label (the company he has never left), "I Was Made to Love Her" captures Steveland Hardaway Judkins, who was barely 17 and had only just shed the "Little" from his Stevie Wonder stage name, at his most exuberant. It's sung with the confidence of a kid who knows he can do anything ('cept jaywalk and play baseball).
For some reason, this era is one which the 21st-century Stevie derides. Tonight, at his first UK gig in a decade - a private affair populated mainly by Radio 2 competition winners and a contingent of sitcom stars - the nearest we get to Sixties Stevie is the teasing promise of "Fingertips", which he decides not to fulfil.
That isn't to say he doesn't have more up his sleeve than snappy Tamla floor shakers. Apart from a cursory four songs from his new album, and a rendition of the dreaded "I Just Called To Say I Love You" which has even his own musicians grimacing, this marathon set leans heavily on the 1970s.
Seventies Stevie is someone I've never particularly warmed to. Obviously I recognise his talent. Obviously I recognise his importance, both creatively and culturally. But his voice, a shivery, cold thing, has always turned me off. As male Motown singers go, he can't hold a torch to Smokey Robinson or Levi Stubbs. After 40 years of performing, his vocal tics, idiosyncrasies and tube-clearing tonsil acrobatics have become exaggerated to the brink of scat.
Jazz-funk is a deadly path to tread, and Wonder is lost somewhere along it. He and his double-figures band are fanatically keen on meandering odysseys, displaying virtuosity for virtuosity's sake. It's accomplished, difficult to do, but - whisper it - pointless. It's the sort of thing musicians love far more than audiences.
Not that tonight doesn't have its outstanding moments. When he gets choked up before "You And I (We Can Conquer The World)" - a song he first sang to his wife, the late Syreeta Wright - and wipes away real tears, it takes a hard man not to get choked up too. He's joined for "Isn't She Lovely" by his and Syreeta's daughter, Aisha, who gurgled and giggled on the original single. She was a baby then, she's a babe now.
Other highlights are "Masterblaster", "Living For The City", "Higher Ground" and the impossibly funky "Superstition". "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" proves that genius is simplicity. "Sir Duke" is so joyous that even the blazered security guards are dancing.
However, by the time he's introducing the band during an elongated "Do I Do", I join the quiet drift away. For all I know, he's still there now, dragging out the end of "Signed Sealed Delivered", and yelling "...aaand, on percussion!" to an empty Abbey Road.
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