BY ROBERT FOLSOM
The tickets said "8pm," but they should have said "Sunset." ("When it's dark enough for the stage lights and video screens" wouldn't have fit on a ticket.) Eager Stevie Wonder fans had to fan themselves in Friday's heat and humidity while waiting for the pop music legend to come on at Starlight Theatre.
When he did take the stage at 8:55, he announced that the show was dedicated to Michael Jackson, his longtime friend who died the day before. Also, at daughter Aisha Morris' whisperings, he dedicated the evening to Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon to make it a "celebration of life," but not before deriding the stupidity of the press and those who go about "destroying someone's life, even in death."
"God blessed us with Michael Jackson's talent. All that other stuff people do and say ... excuse me, kids, close your ears ... is just a bunch of bullshit," he said. Unfortunately, an assessment of the Gloved One's life is not so simple.
Stevie Wonder did set a calming mood with the opener, "Love's in Need of Love Today," which showed him in good voice. The crowd of about 6,200 seemed to forgive the late start.
Then, as so many singers do when they come to town, he launched into "Kansas City." You had to appreciate, though, that he was mimicking Wilbert Harrison, whose version is the best-known.
Saying he had to get to Kansas City by way of Brazil, Wonder especially warmed up the percussion section of his 14-piece band with "Bird of Beauty." Women in long summer dresses were swaying to that beat.
While he got the grooves going with a couple of tracks from his Hotter Than July album, "As If You Read My Mind" and "Master Blaster (Jammin')," nothing got the crowd moving like the drum intro and famous bass line of "Billie Jean." But Stevie didn't lift a vocal cord. Instead, he urged the audience to sing. It worked for the most part, though the throng was more sure of the chorus than the verses. Later, this crowd was going to be lost on another Jackson song.
At least Wonder can laugh about starting a song in the wrong key. That's what happened when he flubbed "Did I Hear You Say You Love Me," another song from Hotter Than July.
As for that other Jackson song, Wonder introduced it as being a song he co-wrote that Michael Jackson sang and Quincy Jones produced. He didn't announce the song; he seemed to think the crowd would know it. A mistake. When he said, "Sing y'all! Go!" very few people knew the words to "I Can't Help It" from Jackson's Off the Wall album. Any sing-along energy dissipated. What you got was music minus vocals. As on "Billie Jean," Wonder did not sing.
Wonder did "sing" through a talk box on one of two improvisations about Michael Jackson. He talked about how "last night I was in such pain" and "I know that Michael is in the arms of Almighty God." When he went into "Never Can Say Goodbye" during this improv, it was behind the masking of the talk box. It was a relief when backup vocalist Keith John ably sang the lyrics without effects.
Moments like this knocked some of Wonder's own hits off the program. The gesture was appreciated, and Wonder's feelings were raw, but it made for an uneven energy level.
It's no wonder that the Starlight audience perked up for "Higher Ground." That song displayed a tight band that brought the crowd to life.
Chick Corea's "Spain" is on the usual set list, too, but it's a tired jazz fusion standard. However, it gave Wonder's band members a chance to show their stuff.
Aisha Morris got to show what she can do, too, on the standard "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life." Her shot came after a break when the band remained onstage while "Blame It (On the Alcohol)" by Jamie Foxx and T-Pain blared on the PA. All Stevie Wonder wanted during the break was tea for his voice. He'd have to wait for that.
He did wind things up on a crowd-pleasing note with "I Just Called to Say I Love You," "Sir Duke," "Superstition" and "As." Before "As," Wonder said he was "happy to celebrate the songs of Michael Jackson."
By way of taking a bow, Wonder and bandmates clapped and danced while Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson hits played over the PA, starting with "ABC" and ending with "Man in the Mirror." As the medley played on, you could see the grief of Michael's passing catching up with Stevie Wonder. Ultimately, that's what this evening became: He was there for us, and we were there for him.
Love's in Need of Love Today
Bird of Beauty
As If You Read My Mind
Master Blaster (Jammin')
Did I Hear You Say You Love Me
All I Do
Knocks Me Off My Feet
I Can't Help It
Talk box improvisation (includes "Never Can Say Goodbye")
Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing
Improvisation for Michael Jackson
You and I
Living for the City
Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)
[PA music: Blame It (On the Alcohol), by Jamie Foxx and T-Pain]
I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life, performed by Aisha Morris
I Just Called to Say I Love You
[PA medley: ABC/Got to Be There/Never Can Say Goodbye/Shake Your Body/Rock With You/Billie Jean/Man in the Mirror]