One of our great natural resources, Stevie Wonder erupted again after an eight-year touring lapse with a dazzling display of his songwriting and performing gifts. Yet for all of his gigantic talent, one still was left wondering whether he’ll ever be as progressive a force as he once was.
Maybe it’s unfair to judge Wonder by superhuman standards, but just look at his track record of the 1970s. Starting with “Music of My Mind,” his full declaration of musical independence from Motown, each new album was a startling advance upon the previous one. He built his own distinctive sound on synthesizers, proving that the instrument can be played expressively. His songwriting had extraordinary range — from aching love ballads to raging social protest — and nobody could outswing Stevie in funk. And even with all of his risk-taking, he still sold millions of records.
That track record was out there in abundance in case anyone had forgotten. The show was almost 2 1/2 hours in length, but with Wonder’s deep catalog it could have been four times as long without playing out.
Wearing a black Nehru-style tunic, seated at two electric keyboards and a grand piano, Wonder knocked out smash after smash as well as rifling through some obscure album cuts and bantering playfully with the crowd. Flexible and ebullient as ever in voice, he weaved around some of the tunes like a jazz singer and thankfully, he could get that great funky old clavinet sound out of his Kurzweil keyboard.
But beyond the hits that wouldn’t quit there were two motivations behind the Natural Wonder/Charge Against Hunger tour — and both were reminders of what Wonder is up against as he tries to appeal to the mid-1990s. First, he introduced a few tunes from his upcoming Motown album “Conversation Peace” (due March 21), his first non-soundtrack album since 1987’s often routine “Characters.” The best of the new tunes was “Sensuous Whisper,” whose biggest asset was the popping, funky bass line of the amazing Nathan Watts.
The other is certainly not his fault — trying to remain the impassioned social crusader in a time when “liberal” is considered an epithet and Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich are sold as folk heroes. Wonder made the point by reaching back and stringing together four songs that still bite — a slyly mocking rendition of “Big Brother,” a broiling “You Haven’t Done Nothin,’ ” the ironic “Village Ghetto Land” and a searing vocal on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Stevie hasn’t recanted a bit, but the times have deserted him and all he can do is preach to his reduced constituency.
That sobering thought was swept away in a closing blaze of exuberantly sung hits such as “I Was Made to Love Her,””Superstition,””Another Star” and, on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, a Wonder campaign song that helped launch a national holiday, the groove-athon “Happy Birthday to You.” Stevie Wonder made a difference — and that’s why we still eagerly await his every move.