Stevie Wonder fans who listened to “Songs in the Key of Life” _ with the hits “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely?” _ in 1976 may not have “got” Wonder’s concept at the time, despite the album’s clearly stated title and accolades. Yet on Friday at Oracle Arena in Oakland before a mostly mature capacity crowd, the musical icon’s mission to celebrate all of the feelings that he, and humans, have, was accomplished on his “Songs in the Key of Life” performance tour.
The wide-ranging album’s brilliance _ it seamlessly melds R&B, jazz, pop, ballads, fusion, gospel, hip-hop and Latin _ was in full force through the three-plus hour concert, featuring dozens of top-notch musicians (great horns and strings) and backup singers. At the outset, Wonder, 64, thanked God, introduced keyboardist-conductor Greg Phillinganes and bassist Nathan Watt, who appear on the original album, and the majestically attired guest vocalist India.Arie.
Then, at keyboards and piano, he got down to business, opening gently with the lilting plea “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” followed by the funky “Have a Talk With God” (his brother Calvin, in attendance, wrote the terrific lyrics) featuring Arie. Local string musicians shone on “Village Ghetto Land,” a “journey down a dead end street” still relevant today.
The energy level kicked up when East Bay percussion great Sheila E. came out for the outrageous jazz fusion instrumental “Contusion,” followed by the equally boisterous “Sir Duke” and “I Wish.”
“Knocks Me Off My Feet,” a gorgeous, simple yet deep love song (the kind Wonder writes so well, soon followed by the similarly great “Summer Soft” and “Ordinary Pain”), segued into a fun sing-off with vocalist Keith John, with bits of “Fever” and tributes to San Francisco and Oakland. Arie was dramatic on the socially-themed anthem “Saturn” and Wonder played an upright piano on the honky-tonk “Ebony Eyes.”
“Pastime Paradise” nicely showcased strings, but didn’t pack as big a punch as it might have, given its political topic. Before “Isn’t She Lovely?” Wonder introduced his children: Aisha (one of his backup singers, for whom the song was written), Sophia and Kwame.
An orchestral mood permeated “Joy Inside My Tears” and an appealingly minimal video display accompanied the history lesson “Black Man.” The group rocked on “All Day Sucker” and mellowed on the instrumental “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call).”
Arie and Wonder sounded beautiful on “Ngiculela _ Es Una Historia _ I Am Singing,” and Wonder soloed on “If It’s Magic,” accompanied by the late Dorothy Ashby’s distinctive harp on a soundtrack.
The stage was packed for “As” and album closer “Another Star,” but Wonder didn’t stop. Taking on a DJ persona, he launched into snippets of “Do I Do,” “Living for the City” and most of “My Cherie Amour” before ending with the lively “Superstition.”