The last few times Stevie Wonder graced the Philadelphia area with his presence, the musical marvel played tightly structured shows with clearly defined missions. In 2014 and again in 2015, he performed his 1976 double album Songs in the Key of Life in its entirety at the Wells Fargo Center. And on the eve of the presidential election in 2016, he did a brief set in support of Hillary Clinton at the Center City dance club Code.
Saturday night's first performance in a two-night stand at the Borgata Event Center in Atlantic City was a looser affair. Billed as "The Stevie Wonder Song Party," it was a less focused evening that aimed to be, in the maestro's words, "a celebration of life, love and music," a phrase that well describes what pretty much any Stevie Wonder song you can think of effortlessly accomplishes.
The 68-year-old genius fronted a 12-member ensemble in a two-hour-plus set that included a cover of a Billy Joel song dedicated to John McCain and a delicately beautiful version of John Lennon's "Imagine" played on a percussive string instrument called a harpejji.
The informally paced evening contained a fair share of surprises while spanning the half-century career of the virtuoso who, with Prince gone, has no living equal as a pop music polymath. The show opened with the lovely "As If You Read My Mind," a deep cut from 1980's Hotter Than July, and reached back as far as 1968 for the rarely heard ballad, "Angie Girl," but also delivered plenty of irresistible crowd-pleasers such as "Sir Duke," "I Wish" and, yes, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours."
The party part of the proceedings started before Wonder hit the stage with DJ Mal-Ski, a record spinner employed by several Los Angeles sports teams who pumped up the casino date night crowd — which included Philadelphia's Mayor Kenney — like an experienced wedding or bar mitzvah DJ. You might expect to hear a Prince vs. Michael Jackson face-off as Stevie Wonder preshow music, but Bon Jovi and that Journey song that played in the last scene of The Sopranos? Hey, we're in Jersey, why not?
Mal-Ski merits mention because once Wonder came on with his band, which included two horns, three backup singers, and two percussionists, the DJ did not leave, but stayed on stage to function as an in-show hype man.
He was mostly musically nonintrusive — though the vinyl scratching sounds on "Ma Cherie Amour" were a pointless annoyance. But the "I need to hear you sing!" audience-directing instructions — while clearly done in the service of Wonder himself — nonetheless cheapened the rare and not inexpensive (tickets started at $195) privilege of seeing a living legend in the flesh.
The song party concept aimed for interactivity. Fans were encouraged to send pictures of "favorite Stevie Wonder moments" to a website, which were displayed on video screens during love songs like "Amour" and the treacly "I Just Called To Say I Love You." Schmaltzy, but sweet.
Wonder himself also encouraged audience participation, with lots of "let's hear from the ladies and the fellas" in long lead-ins in which the volume of the music from the stage was lowered to a hush. That quiet was emboldened by restless fans such as the drunk woman who felt the need to say to Wonder that he was the one being paid to sing, and that she was not obliged to. Thankfully, he was out of earshot.
Okay, enough complaining. The improvised set list delivered plenty of surprises. At the start of the show, Wonder said, "This is an emotional time for me. I'm mourning the loss of Aretha, but I'm celebrating her music." He did not, however, cover any of the songs by the fellow Detroiter at whose funeral he's scheduled to sing on Friday.
Instead, he surprised the crowd — and the band, it seemed — with a take on "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?," the 1960 hit by the Shirelles penned by Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
The song started off with only Wonder's piano, and the bandleader gently chiding his players — who included such longtime coworkers as bassist Nathan Watts, who has played with Wonder for four decades — for not picking up musical cues. But by the time it was over, a full-blown revamped arrangement of the song Wonder said he "always loved" had been created in real time, marked by his keening, remarkably expressive vocals and locked-in interplay between his backup singers and percussionists. It was a wonder to behold.
As was the curious tribute to McCain, whose death was reported by news outlets shortly before Wonder took the stage. In a gorgeously sung midsection of the show, the singer began an interlude in which "Angie Girl" flowed into "Send One You Love" from the opaque 1979 opus Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.
Wonder's pro-love political message was clear throughout the night: "Are you ready to make America a no-hate zone?," he queried the crowd. "Am I asking too much of you?" And his tribute to McCain emphasized the Arizona Republican senator's independent streak. In his musical mind, that meant it was time for a song championing individualism by another piano man: "Just the Way You Are," whose melody Wonder caressed with loving care in an extended sing-along, delivered with the sincerity that never fails him. He also asked the audience for a favor:
"If you see Billy Joel, tell him I said hi."