Stevie Wonder was so prolific as a songwriter in the mid-1970s that he had 21 songs he insisted be included on his 1976 album "Songs in the Key of Life." To fit the long performances onto the vinyl release, Motown's Tamla Records had to use two 12-inch discs plus a bonus, four-song, 7-inch EP. When Wonder performed at Baltimore's Royal Farms Arena Thursday night, he played all 21 compositions in order with the EP songs sandwiched between the LP songs.
Wonder has been far less prolific recently. Over the past 19 years he has released only 15 new songs, all of them on the 2005 album, "A Time To Love," whose top-charting pop single was the No. 96 'So What the Fuss.' This tour is about reliving his past.
But what a glorious past it is. The 21 songs on "Songs in the Key of Life" are all over the map: pounding funk, tender ballads, religious hymns, political anthems, South African folkore, children's sing-alongs, tricky jazz changes. By working his way through this album, Wonder displayed the full spectrum of his interests in a way he never could have in a more typical greatest-hits show.
Wonder, who was famous for recording as a one-man band in the studio, brought an entire army to recreate the album in Baltimore. Musicians came and went all night, but they included three keyboardists (including Wonder), three guitarists, five percussionists, six horn players, 10 string players, a dozen backing singers, harmonica specialist Frederic Yonnet, Nathan Watts (the bassist on the original album) and duet singer Indie.Arie, who was wearing a different turban and different gown each time she emerged from backstage.
The 64-year-old Wonder is half-bald now, but the hair left at the back of his head has been extended in thin braids down his back to his waist. He wore a black sports suit with white striping over an obvious paunch, but he retained the same goofy, childlike sense of humor he's always had. He was struggling with a sore throat Thursday, but he has retained his vocal power better than most of his contemporaries.
There was a little twist to every song. 'Love's in Need of Love Today' was given a long scat-vocal coda by Wonder as he sat at his electric piano. 'Have a Talk with God' was turned into a duet with Arie. 'Village Ghetto Land' featured only Wonder's still supple voice and the 10-piece string section. 'Easy Goin' Evening' became a long, impressive jazz jam with Wonder on chromatic harmonica, Yonnet on diatonic harmonica, and Ryan Kilgore on tenor sax backed only by bass and drums.
On 'I Am Singing,' Wonder played a harpejji, a stringed, electric instrument that is played like a keyboard but produces a sound like an acoustic guitar. Sharing lead vocals with Arie and Jasmin Cruz, Wonder played an impressive solo on the harpejji and allowed the song to segue into Curtis Mayfield's 'People Get Ready' and Arie's 'Nothing That I Love More.'
But the highlights of the evening were the hard-driving funk-rock numbers such as 'Sir Duke,' 'I Wish,' 'All Day Sucker,' and 'As.' Fueled by two magnificent trap drummers, the enormous, sometimes-unwieldy band cohered into a locomotive charging down a track on these songs. Wonder acted as the engineer, steering with his keyboard chords and stoking the fire with his irresistible tenor.