City Goes Crazy for Stevie Wonder
Fantastic Turner Hall show celebrated an all-time great album.
Last Friday, in a resounding victory for Milwaukee, a crowd of what seemed like a thousand musicians and singers took the stage at Turner Hall to celebrate Stevie Wonder. The focus was on his epic double album, Songs In The Key Of Life. I usually prefer not writing about Milwaukee music — it’s just too shady for a musician who is part of the mix here to comment on others. This doesn’t mean I’m down on it, I think the scene here is as good as it’s ever been. I get out of my dungeon once in awhile and when I do, everything I see and hear indicates the talent pool in this city is deep. And I don’t think it’s a case of rose colored glasses, either. I took in the show and the crowd and couldn’t help but feel thankful for the diversity and positive spirit on display. Did this solve anything in our divided city? Probably not, but it modeled something we should aspire to.
The show was put together (let’s retire the word ‘curated’) by Tarik Moody, a prominent on-air personality at Radio Milwaukee, and David Wake of De La Buena. Also deeply involved was David Ravel, who produced a lot of memorable shows at Alverno’s Pittman Theater. There were rappers, singers, musicians of every kind rotating on and off the stage all night. The stage manager must have slept for two days after it was over. The show was exhilarating from start to finish and at times it was transcendent in its scale. I’m sorry if you missed it, because it was not recorded for posterity. That was a mistake — If it had played in New York, L.A. or London, it would have been.
The word ghetto is rarely used these days and nobody really misses it. It seemed to be a convenient code for people with a mistaken notion of cities as war zones and was frequently used when Wonder wrote this song. War was on the radio with “The World Is Ghetto,” and Hollywood was selling tales of dangerous inner cities… Shaft! Putting aside linguistic considerations, we’re left with a song — written just a few years past the time Stevie Wonder dropped ‘Little” from his name and took control of his artistic life — and it’s a doozy.
You have to marvel at any artist who was playing and singing like a full grown man at age twelve. “Fingertips,” Parts I and II, was insanely exciting and bewildering coming from one that young. It had to be Ray Charles disguised as boy. Had he stayed at that level for the rest of his career, Wonder would still have been a Hall Of Famer. But when he grabbed the reins and declared his total autonomy after his 21st birthday, he reached unthinkable heights. That young man had been woodshedding. Hanging out at Motown, soaking up the vibes and stealing licks from the incredible house band, he graduated from that elite finishing school a skilled drummer, keyboardist and a first rate songwriter with world class vocal chops — and he could also play harmonica like Toots Thielman!
A lot of his songs were flat-out rave ups. He was also a balladeer and on occasion a prankster. Anyone who has seen his joyride in Carpool Karaoke with James Corden understands this guy has a wicked sense of humor. The slyness was tamped down a bit and mixed with a real sense of social justice (something always on display in his songs) when he wrote this oddly baroque pop tune. Smothered in a bed of strings that had me imagining George Martin in the room with him, this was way different from the spirited funk his fans were boogying to. The semi-classical mood seems playful, but the lyrics deliver a nasty gut punch:
Would you like to go with me
Down my dead end street
Would you like to come with me
To Village Ghetto Land
See the people lock their doors
While robbers laugh and steal
Beggars watch and eat their meals
From garbage cans
Broken glass is everywhere
It’s a bloody scene
Killing plagues the citizens
Unless they own police
Children play with rusted cars
Sores cover their hands
Politicians laugh and drink
Dunk to all demands
Families buying dog food now
Starvation roams the streets
Babies die before they’re born
Infected by the grief
Now some folks say that we should be
Glad for what we have
Tell me would you be happy
In Village Ghetto Land
Village Ghetto Land
© S. Byrd / S. Wonder
The music is simple on the surface, but there’s an odd resolution at the end of every verse. Somehow, without any signal, the tune slips into a new key. It establishes that new tonal territory beyond a doubt and then, just as your ear is comfortable with the change, it’s back to the original key. A musical sleight of hand that must have been fun for him to conjure. The melody, having been written by Stevie Wonder, is another gem. So sweet and innocent, a delicious spoonful of sugar that’s so disarming it allows the message to sneak past any defense you might put up.
Everyone from Elton John to Prince has called this the best album ever made. It’s greatness transcends imperfect circumstances. At Turner hall, where it was very hard to make out the words, I was carried away by melody and harmonic invention. Not harmony as some kind of vanilla four-part barbershop thing — in Stevie’s world it has odd and, often jazzy sounding chords, and a whole lot of Baptist Soul. Then there’s the funk —remember he helped invent it, so it was fresh. He piled on clavinets, synth basses and other keyboards and they grooved impeccably with the always stellar drumming. It never hurts to be listening one of the most moving singers of all time, but, as we learned at the show, these melodies can be song by anyone and will still be stuck in your head for a long time. When Wonder made this record he was at a creative high, which is a scary thought — at the altitude he was cruising at, the air is pretty thin. He was wearing out his team, the engineers and musicians had to catnap and snack when they had a chance, because he was working on it around the clock.
Last Friday hearing some of Milwaukee’s best singers and players perform this made me aware of my good fortune to live in a city where a lot of talented people are trying their best to make it a happier place to live. And how lucky are we all to be living in the age of Wonder? If you left this planet before that 12-year-old force of nature made his debut, you should really consider reincarnation.