Editor’s note: Stevie Wonder played Sept. 2, at the Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena at Harveys. Tahoe Onstage writer Spencer Kilpatrick below offers a tribute to the legendary musician.
If 2016 has taught us anything it’s that our heroes won’t be around forever. No matter how permanently they live in our hearts or how indelible their mark on modern music, they too will, one day, be the subject of teary-eyed tributes and shocked water-cooler talks. But if the recent passings of Haggard, Bowie, and Prince have any silver lining at all it’s the reminder of our duty as, not just music lovers, but human beings to celebrate the time we have with our loved ones while they’re still here to enjoy it.
I don’t remember the first time I heard Stevie Wonder but I remember the first time it mattered. Sixteen and scrawny, I slowly worked my way through my dad’s impressive collection of CDs and records. As a young guitarist, my mindset revolved around Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page. Of course I knew about other music but why would I want to listen to anything that didn’t have a guitar solo? Something that could satisfy my most lizard-brained emotions with a high-pitched bend, as well as my more calculated notions of musicianship with masterful chops. I just didn’t need anything else.
Absent-mindedly, I took out the first disc of a Stevie Wonder box set and placed it in the CD player, before turning quickly back to whatever guitar magazine I was reading. With the opening vocal run of “Hey Love” I was putty; I was broken; I was fixed; I was a hormone-filled sack of goose-bumps. At not even three minutes long, “Hey Love” taught me what soul was. I wish I could say I immediately tore through the rest of his catalogue consuming everything he ever released and taking notes along the way. But I didn’t, I just replayed the hell out of that song.
It took me a few years to really work through everything but, by the time I did, I was more than ready to sneak into Outside Lands to watch him close out the festival in 2012. By the time I finally got in he was leading the band through a supremely spirited “As” right before closing with “Happy Birthday.” I was overjoyed by the fact that I got to see him at all (and listen from a tree in Golden Gate Park for most of the show) but what he did next made me feel the way I had a handful of years earlier in my parents’ basement. No, he didn’t do “Hey Love,” but he sang with the same fervor, the same recklessness, and the same absolutely commanding virtuosity that he did nearly 50 years earlier when the song was recorded.
“Now I don’t know any of the words to this one but I feel like doing it. I’m gonna need your help though, OK?” He imitated a kick drum and told the drummer to copy him before humming a bit and calling out a few chords for the keyboard players. The groove, the changes, everything was almost unrecognizable until he sang.
“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” the crowd erupted and joined along. He closed with “My Girl” that night.
I saw him play “Songs In The Key of Life” in its entirety a couple years later and watched him as one of the headliners of Life Is Beautiful in Las Vegas last summer. Each time I see him I’m struck with how incredibly his voice has held up. To this day, on his 66th birthday, he has no problem climbing the ladder to that signature howl in “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” or to playfully do call-and-response vocal runs with his considerably younger backing singers. Vivacious and uninhibited as ever, Stevie Wonder is every bit the icon he became in the 1970s.
Lake Tahoe Summer Concert Series – Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena at Harveys
- July 2: Slightly Stoopid, Soja, the Grouch, Eligh, Zion I; $37.50
- July 6: Widespread Panic, $49.50
- July 13: “An Evening with James Taylor;” $59.50 to $129.50
- July 15: Peter Gabriel and Sting; SOLD OUT
- July 23: Tim McGraw, Brooke Eden; $89.50 to $179.50
- July 24: Don Henley, $59.50, $89.50 and $149.50.
- July 27 and July 29: Keith Urban, Brett Eldredge, Maren Morris; $49.50 to $125
- Aug. 18: Steve Miller, Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings; $39.50 to $139.50
- Aug. 26: Sammy Hagar and the Circle, $69.50
- Sept. 2: “An Evening with Stevie Wonder,” $99.50 to $249.50. Presale starts May 25.
- Purchase tickets online at Ticketmaster.com and APEConcerts.com. Live entertainment tax added to base ticket price.
Related story: Concert review: Life is Beautiful with Stevie Wonder. LINK