A Wonder Summer’s Night – 2008

The late night TransPennine service from Manchester to York made for an uncomfortable and at times unpleasant journey. It was not the fault of any inclement British weather, or for that matter the Railway Company. No, this one was down to Stevie Wonder. The carriages were jammed full of music lovers, returning home from The Manchester Arena, having just witnessed a Stevie concert lasting a shade under three hours. It was as ever full of musical high points, with a standing ovation both opening and closing the show, though, by the sound of things, not everybody was feeling the love.

Post concert debate was lively and raucous, with those shouting the loudest none too impressed by what they had just witnessed. ‘Too much talking and not enough music’ topped the list of gripes, a reference to Stevie’s attempts to explain both his extended UK concert absence, and the reasons that prompted his stage return. He played too many ‘unknown’ songs, and little known album tracks chimed others. Much stronger views were expressed criticising the rallying calls Stevie made on Senator Barack Obama’s behalf; not it was claimed what they had paid good money to hear. It was all very emotive stuff, and had got me thinking. The Stevie ‘detractors’ on the train far outnumbered the Stevie ‘defenders’; something replicated the following day in print via the concert reviews. In the spirit of fair play, and to bring some congruence to the tale, it might help to fill in some of the argumentative gaps with a few actual facts.

The concert was Stevie’s second UK show as part of his ‘A Wonder Summer’s Night’ 2008 tour, and yes… it had been a while since his last UK tour in 1992, though he had played UK shows in-between. Of the twenty six songs included in the evening’s set, sixteen were hit singles, including most [though not all] of his crowd pleasers and show stoppers. There was no new album to plug, and only one ‘new’ track included, the as yet unreleased ‘Keep Foolin’ Yourself [Baby Girl]’. A real highlight of the show involved a throwback to the early ‘70’s’, with a fabulous ‘talk box’ version of an old Stylistics number ‘People Make The World Go Round’, as well as an inspired choice to showcase his hand-picked backing band – many of them new faces to a British audience – via jazz maestro Chick Corea’s most celebrated number ‘Spain’. The remainder were hardly little known album tracks; these included ‘Golden Lady’ from ‘Innervisons’, missing for many years from Stevie’s UK set lists.

As for the Stevie chat, and the chief culprit or so it seemed for all this argy-bargy, well maybe the detractors did have a point. Even by Stevie’s sometimes self indulgent ways, the rhetoric appeared a little over the top in places, his politicking on Obama’s behalf, something not fully appreciated by a British audience, or for that matter, properly engaged in the significance of what would happen three months later. The carriage banter all got a bit bad tempered at times, although it was hard to fathom how anybody could have felt ‘cheated’ [as was claimed] or short changed by a well rehearsed show full of hits, and ‘get you out of your seat’ moments, that had already played to hundreds of thousands of people whilst doing the rounds in Canada and The United States, and would shortly be heading for Europe. Fortunately, none of the detractors had been in Birmingham the night before. If they had, as I had, they were keeping quiet about it.

On this the opening night of the tour, Stevie really let rip on the chat front. He spoke at length about the death of his beloved Mother Lula in 2006, and about how she had inspired him in a dream like way to go back on the stage and get back on the road; there was not a dry eye in the house. He spoke passionately about peace, unity, equality and the need for political, economic, and social change, he was right on it, and meant every word. The crowd were engrossed and patient; although that patience was wearing a little thin when former professional footballer George Boateng took to the stage together with Shaun Campbell to present Stevie with a statue of Arthur Wharton, the first black British professional footballer. I had been following what was very much a localised story in the North East of England, and was impressed by what appeared to be a brave move by all concerned to publicise something slightly out of its natural comfort zone. Sadly it all appeared to bemuse many of the concert goers, at least the ones around me.

The Birmingham music – ushered in as it was throughout the tour – by a fully blown Stevie harmonica work out on the Miles Davis standard ‘All Blues’ – had less songs than the Manchester gig – twenty four – though included two more hit singles. The two set lists were very similar, though as with all Stevie shows, never the same. By the time this ‘UK three shows in four days tour’ turned up at London’s O2, new plans had been put in place to return – with the cameras in tow – at the end of the month. Filmed over two nights, was what turned out to be Stevie’s first ever concert DVD release, appropriately titled ‘At Last’. The music, including the sing-along hits, the ballads, the odd cover version, and the odd guest, was in line with the Manchester and Birmingham gigs, with the ‘chat’ not totally dismissed or ignored, but, maybe as a result of some feedback, or maybe on editorial advice was now to some extent at least, toned down and edited by Stevie himself, as the previous long speech was now condensed into some closing abridged remarks.

It would be difficult not to acknowledge the fact, and, whether the ‘detractors’ knew it or not, that they had won the day. For an artist who was famous before most of his UK audiences were born, and for someone who was great before many knew that his music existed, it saddened me to think that even Stevie was now forced to cede to popular demand, and even accepting the old adage that ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’, this only appeared to endorse the view, that those who shout loudest usually win the day.