Stevie Wonder

IMG_5078Last night Kish and I joined JV and Mrs. JV to catch Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life:  The Performance at the Schott.  It made for a long evening — the show featured every song on that titanic double album, plus some extras and an encore medley of Stevie Wonder hits that ended with him and his singers leaving the stage at about midnight after a thumping, crushing version of Superstition — but it was worth every minute.

IMG_5060Stevie Wonder is aptly named.  In the ’70s, he was one of several artists — Neil Young was another — who could be counted on to produce stunning songs, time after time.  It was a wonder that he could do it, again and again, without a single clinker.  During that period you could buy a Stevie Wonder album, unheard, with complete confidence, secure in the knowledge that you were going to get terrific music and interesting lyrics that would move your feet and expand your social consciousness at the same time.  Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale were all great albums, and Songs in the Key of Life was the double-album capstone that cemented Wonder’s status as a full-fledged, multi-faceted genius who could effortlessly cross musical genres to capture the urgings of his inner voice.

Last night we learned that he is aptly named, too, because his outer voice has somehow escaped the ravages of time.  Backed by a huge band that put out an enormous sound, a cadre of talented singers in their own right, and a string section of Columbus’ own, Stevie Wonder knocked the audience out with the 2015 versions of the jumping songs — Sir Duke, I Wish, Isn’t She Lovely, As, and the closing medley all kicked ass — but his singing on the ballads was especially extraordinary.  The star did full justice to beautiful but vocally demanding songs like Knocks Me Off My Feet, Ordinary Pain, Joy Inside My Tears, and Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing as if he had just stepped out of the ’70s.  If you’ve been to see a performance of a ’70s musical star lately, you know that it is rare indeed to find one who still has their full vocal powers as you remember them, and in Stevie Wonder’s case it was even more astonishing because last night he obviously was battling the effects of a cold.  But he is the consummate performer, he played and sang his heart out, and the songs themselves didn’t suffer one bit.

If Stevie Wonder and his show are coming to your town, you really owe it to yourself to see him.  He puts on an unforgettable show, and part of the joy of the performance is rediscovering this legendary figure and music that you loved long ago and that still resonates in your inner core today.  As we left the concert, shaking our heads at Stevie Wonder’s talent, JV and I agreed:  we need to get more of his music on the iPod, pronto.

 

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American artists, British bands

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

There are eight Americans and two Brits in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

(not a definitive list, but useful for illustrating my point). What’s strange is that all the Americans entries are individuals, while the British entries are for bands. Going down the list, it’s pretty much the same, with a few exceptions. Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison for the Americans, the Clash and the Who for the British.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Elvis

Elvis

It’s not a fluke. Anyone who’s listened to pop music from the past fifty years has probably noticed that America’s best contributions come in the forms of individuals, while British ones come in the form of bands. None of the “best American bands” we’ve discussed so far are as influential, in my opinion, as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Many of America’s best bands have been dominated by a single member – Nirvana by Kurt Cobain, the Beach Boys by Brian Wilson, the Doors by Jim Morrison – while Britain’s best bands traditionally derive their brilliance from collaboration (or compromise) – the Beatles from Lennon and McCartney, the Rolling Stones from Jagger and Richards, etc.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The “American artists, British bands” rule applies too consistently to be dismissed as coincidence. Why is it this way?

Maybe it has something to do with America’s culture of individualism. The republican ideal of a man free to work to improve his own life has, perhaps, helped create the image of the American singer-songwriter

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

who blazes his own path through music. This explanation strikes me as too idealistic, however.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

It could have something to do with America’s celebrity culture. Americans love creating personas for public figures. Maybe individual artists, with songs reflecting their own personality and values, resonate more with the American people. With more popularity, they are more likely to have successful careers that allow them more creativity. In fact, nearly all the great American musicians have personas like this. Sinatra was classy, Elvis wild but respectful, Springsteen working-class, Madonna sexual, etc. We even give them nicknames like “the Boss” and “the King.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Prince

Prince

Another likely explanation is that, for whatever reason, America started a tradition of successful singer-songwriters that musicians imitated throughout the years. The great musicians whose pictures are in this post might have been following the model set by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, jazz greats like Miles Davis, or country legends like Woody Guthrie. In Britain, aspiring musicians would be more likely to follow the example of their country’s legends, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z

In the past thirty years rap has dominated American popular music. More than any other genre, rap is all about individualism. I wonder if this is continuing the same tradition. After all, rappers do tend to have well-known personas (usually involving a huge ego).

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake