I’ve loved Stevie Wonder’s music my whole life. My mum tells the story that one of the records they’d rock me to sleep with was Songs In The Key of Life – which was born the same year as me and makes me think my folks were pretty fucking hip.
And so, of course I love all of the great Stevie albums (and many of the average/dud ones too!) but Key of Life is the one. If I have to pick one. But why pick just one – and actually Original Musicquarium and the boxset At The Close of The Century might actually be the ones; they’re probably the collections I’ve listened to most often, maybe more than any album by any artist outside of The Beatles and Bob Dylan.
It had never really come up that I could Stevie Wonder in concert – in my lifetime. And after his early 60s live concert albums there wasn’t much on offer live until 1995’s Natural Wonder double album. Which I loved and was the soundtrack to my university years as a Stevie Wonder fan; sending me back to Music of My Mind and Talking Book and that magical run of 1970s albums.
The day it was announced that Stevie Wonder would be playing in New Zealand in late 2008 I practically did a cartwheel. And then I crashed down pretty heavily, not just because of my size, but because I’d read the fine print that it was Auckland and Christchurch shows only. This was common at the time. I’d miss Carole King and a few others. But I really didn’t want to miss Stevie…
Turns out we were due to be in Christchurch right around that time for my wife’s grandfather’s 80th birthday. Could we go a day or two early? Turns out we could. Life was simpler then, sans children. And with steady income. We just booked flights and time off and that was that. Oh, no concert ticket!
Everything about seeing Stevie Wonder live was brilliant. The setlist. The band. His voice. His aura. His abilities. The songs. The songs. The fucking songs! And the playing. But the story of how I got to the show is a big part of what helped to make it one of the best gigs ever.
I’ve been thinking about Stevie Wonder a lot lately, and playing all of the albums, doing a deep dive, helped along by a couple of books I’m reading and my late discovering of the Year of the Stevie podcast which I thoroughly recommend. So along with watching old concert footage I’ve been thinking about how lucky I was to see the show I saw, which is pretty much covered on the Live At Last DVD. It was a time to see some legends too – around that time I mean – seeing Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, man! Missing Jeff Beck. But you can’t collect the set, and lord knows I’ve tried.
Anyway, here’s what happened to get me to Stevie Wonder…
A guy tells me that it’s worth a shot reviewing L.A. Mitchell. She’s good he says, and would appreciate the coverage, and besides, she’s going to be Stevie Wonder’s opening act. It’s a long shot but it might result in a comp, you never know. I never do know but I thought I’d try this angle. I don’t often try angles. You’ve got to try the angles.
So I go see an L.A. Mitchell gig – that is indeed good. And I say so. And her manager offers me a ticket to see Stevie Wonder when I mention I’m going to be in Christchurch.
We fly down a couple of days later. But the flight is delayed. And we turn up about 7.50. For an 8.30 show. We get a cab to my wife’s aunty and uncle’s place where we’re staying. We ditch our bags and swipe their car and Katy drives me to the venue.
I’m texting the manager – saying we’re late and is there a chance and can the ticket be left somewhere. And she’s texting back saying hurry up and that I’m running late and it’s about to start. And we don’t know each other. And I get dropped in an empty lot next door and run past parked cars to a venue that seems eerily silent. The manager is standing at the last door open waving the ticket – as much so I can recognise that this is the person I need to see as anything. I run up, panting, introduce myself, snatch the ticket and she said, “quick – it’s about to start!”
We walk in. The lights dim as we get to the arena floor and the crowd goes nuts and I’m walked to very near the front to an amazing seat. L.A Mitchell and her band have played, I’ve missed their set entirely but I’m sitting with them. Kinda lol. I say hello and shake hands with people I’ll never see or speak to again.
And then Stevie is walked to the stage by his daughter, now his backing singer. She was the crying baby on Isn’t She Lovely on Songs In They Key of Life. She’s about a year older than me. I’ve had her cries in my head my whole life, in some sense, in the rolodex; in the vault.
Stevie is playing his chromatic harmonica. The band is playing some hushed jazz. I recognise the melody after a few seconds. He’s playing All Blues from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album.
He sits front of stage at the keys and the crowd is standing, going nuts.
He plays Living For The City and Master Blaster and All I Do and Ribbon In The Sky and Higher Ground and Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing and Overjoyed and My Cherie Armour and Signed, Sealed Delivered and Uptight (Everything’s Alright) and I Wish and Sir Duke and Superstition and yes he plays I Just Called To Say I Love You (so I go take a piss) but he also plays Happy Birthday and I wasn’t expecting that to be so good. He plays You Are The Sunshine Of My Life and he plays Isn’t She Lovely. And I tear up thinking about the connection to his daughter, her living in that song and with that song forever. And now on stage with the old man and they’re both just nailing it. Hit after fucking hit. I think about that song swimming in my head forever, those tumbling drums, the harmonica, the sizzling hi-hats, the catchy, catchy chorus.
Oh, and he plays As. It’s one of the best songs in his catalogue. But aren’t they nearly all? Certainly the ones he hit the stage with on this night were all classics. No weird selections, all hits, all the gems. Yes, I could have wanted one or two other favourites that I love. But I also couldn’t have asked for more.
A free ticket to one of my heroes. Not only did I not have to see the opening act, they supplied me with the free fucking ticket.
I told my dad this story just recently.
“So you wrote some words saying it was good and scored a free ticket to something you really wanted to see?” He checked to make sure he was hearing it correctly. He seemed about as proud of me as he ever had.
“Pity you couldn’t work out how to keep that charade running a little longer and more often eh!”
Isn’t he lovely!
You can support Off The Tracks via PressPatron