Stevie Wonder promised the Bonnaroo crowd “some song-travelin” Saturday night and that’s exactly what they got. The legendary R&B singer’s two-hour set offered a trip through four Wonder-full decades (the ’90s were conspicuously skipped) with the occasional detour for politics.
“Let’s keep it real,” said Wonder as the 13-piece backing band played the opening notes of “Living for the City,” his seminal 1973 narrative on race relations. “We can never let no one ever get us back to a place like this again. Never. No Tea Party — I don’t care. You want to be a supremacist? Then be the supreme of getting people together.”
He also had some advice for anyone confronted with racist talk. “You say, ‘Hey what’s that smell? It smells like some bullshit!’ Are we in agreement?” A resounding roar from the crowd meant the answer was “yes,” though hearing the affable star swear may have helped tip the scale.
Wonder’s performance was, for the most part, a constant string of feel-good moments. He initially walked onto the stage soloing on a keytar — a signifier of the supreme funkiness to come. He dug out a trio of ’80s hits to get the party started, hollering, “Saxophone!” halfway through “As If You Read My Mind,” and summoning an era-appropriate solo.
Then Little Stevie came out — voice high and bright — as he revisited 1966 via “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “For Once in My Life.” Each song was given a proper Motown finish, ending in stuttering big-band fanfare and, of course, harmonica for the latter.
He and the band stretched out over classics like “Higher Ground,” “Sir Duke,” “Superstition,” and “My Cherie Amour” while tens of thousands sang along. For “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” Wonder split up vocal duties between the men and the women, recreating the song’s trademark Latin melody. Later, he led the crowd through a series of increasingly difficult notes.
“You sounded kind of good,” he said with a laugh. That was generous.
Armed with a talk box, Wonder eventually made a well-received return to the groove, first covering Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk,” then playing a funked-up version of Whitfield and Strong’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
Wonder was spry at 60, and clearly in a good mood as he stepped up onto the piano bench to sing his upbeat 1982 hit “Do I Do.” He also played the consummate bandleader, more than once commanding his players to switch key mid-song.
For Wonder’s grand finale, the band more than doubled in size as a kinda silly-looking international drum circle (complete with a man in a headdress) appeared to the left and a choir lined up on the right. It was the thought that counted, though, as 36 highly capable musicians performed the socially conscious recent song “A Time to Love” and 1976’s disco-tinged “Another Star.”
“Until we get together again, I send you love from above,” said Wonder before he took his farewell bow. Then he added, “I’m going to be watching Jay-Z too.”
“Did I Hear You Say You Love Me”
“As If You Read My Mind”
“Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”
“For Once in My Life”
“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”
“Knocks Me Off My Feet”
“Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” (Parliament cover)
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Whitfield and Strong cover)
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”
“Living for the City”
“Give Peace a Chance” (Plastic Ono Band cover)
“My Cherie Amour”
“Do I Do”
“A Time to Love”