The raison d’être of Stevie Wonder’s annual holiday concert is the collection of toys for needy children in the Southland, something he’s done enthusiastically for 18 years now, each edition featuring a different lineup of friends, musical colleagues and family members.
Saturday’s installment of Wonder’s House Full of Toys at the Nokia Theatre, however, may have given the biggest gift of all to the audience of about 7,000: the first-ever performance of his landmark 1976 double album “Songs in the Key of Life” in its entirety.
Elton John is hardly the only musical luminary who has cited it as the greatest album of all time. That’s a subjective assessment to be sure, but there’s little argument that “Songs” is among the most impressive musical works of the 20th century, a tour de force that took Wonder’s rapidly evolving talent to yet another monumental peak.
A number of celebrity friends were on hand to help out in this ambitious undertaking, among them India.Arie, John Mayer, Ledisi, Chick Corea, Esperanza Spalding, Eric Benet, organist Ronnie Foster and single-name singer Joe, and the choral ensemble dubbed the Radio Free KJLH Performance Choir. The masterful house band featured many of the musicians who played on the original sessions — among them keyboardist Herbie Hancock, singers Deniece Williams and Shirley Brewer, bassist Nathan Watts, saxophonist Trevor Lawrence, trumpeter Steve Madaio, guitarist Ben Bridges and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, who also was musical director of Saturday’s wondrous delivery of the album’s songs.
Those songs coursed through a still-impressive range of themes, musical styles and instrumental textures to address subjects both intimately autobiographical — the joyful reverie of childhood that is “I Wish,” the multiplicity of feelings of new parenthood in “Isn’t She Lovely” — and broadly sociological, as in the infectious history lesson of “Black Man,” and the cry of frustration that is “Village Ghetto Land,” both which he wrote with Gary Byrd.
Not the least impressive of Wonder’s accomplishments on “Songs” was the cohesiveness he brought to the disparate musical elements he tapped from street-corner doo-wop, gospel, pop, rock, funk, R&B, jazz fusion and soul styles.
“Village Ghetto Land” contained one of many strokes of genius of “Songs in the Key of Life,” setting the damning lyric — “Children play with rusted cars / Sores cover their hands / Politicians laugh and drink, drunk to all demands” — against an elegant accompaniment by a string ensemble. Wonder brilliantly juxtaposed a sound representing the culmination of Western European cultural tradition against the harsh reality of life for those living outside the gates of that tradition.
The show opened with five male singers delivering the wordless a cappella introduction of “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” before Wonder and the band launched into the song’s plea for understanding. In retrospect, that plea sounded even more sobering considering the sociopolitical gulf that widened in the nine years between the Beatles’ utopian “All You Need Is Love” and the grim conditions Wonder expressed in 1976: “The force of evil plans to make you its possession / And it will if we let it destroy everybody.”
Wonder’s recommendation for the problem followed in “Have a Talk With God,” before the show wended its way to the exceptional string of songs at the heart of the album: “Village Ghetto Land,” the ebullient “Sir Duke,” the incessantly infectious “I Wish,” the disarmingly beautiful “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” the ominously potent “Pastime Paradise,” the gossamer romanticism of “Summer Soft,” and the sultry sweet “Ordinary Pain.”
Another bonus of the decision to devote the 3½-hour show to “Songs of the Key of Life” was the focus it provided to the event that in years past has tended to meander and stretch out like a leisurely family gathering.
At the end of the show, Wonder brought out all the performers who’d joined in various numbers earlier for the all-hands-on-deck finale on the closing track “Another Star,” the only time the proceedings crossed the line into excess from too many forces assembled in one spot.
The onstage performances were transmitted by an elaborate camera crew onto two giant video screens flanking the Nokia’s stage — presumably there will be a television or cable broadcast at some point, and/or DVD video release.
Wonder told the crowd “See you next year,” raising the question how he might follow a nearly flawless live presentation of an album often cited as one of his greatest achievements. How about back-to-back offerings of the two standout albums that set the stage for “Songs in the Key of Life”: “Innervisions” and “Fulfillingness' First Finale,” both of which, like “Songs in the Key of Life,” took album of the year Grammy Awards? We all have a right to our own Christmas wish lists, right?
Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2