The name of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life Performance tour had double meaning Saturday night at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Wonder did, indeed, re-imagine the songs from that 1976 double album and EP, fronting up to 30 tireless musicians and interspersing those numbers with a dozen others.
And he played songs in all the emotional keys of life: anguish, rapture, disappointment, hope, bitterness, joy, faith. He sermonized verbally and musically about the redemptive and transformative power of love, like a minister whose every text underlines the same point.
He began the three-hour, 40-minute concert by thanking doctors who saved his life at N.C. Baptist Hospital in 1973, when he suffered a near-fatal car crash outside Salisbury en route to a Durham concert.
After that speech, he seemed to roam wherever his thoughts took him. Once he dedicated a song to all the people murdered in Paris Friday, then broke into a medley of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and The Impressions’ “People Get Ready.”
He recreated the original orchestration of “If It’s Magic,” singing about the world’s failure to sustain brotherhood in a voice that cracked with emotion, as the late Dorothy Ashby’s harp track played behind him.
Often he turned playful. He ambled off on a long harmonica solo and turned it into bits of “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” and “Holiday for Strings,” pop hits from his youth. Then he echoed Junior Walker’s sax break from “Urgent.” Eventually, the solo turned into “The Star-Spangled Banner” with a chunk of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”; Wonder blew such a sustained note at the “land of the free” section that he sounded like a train whistle vanishing into the distance.
The concert runs so long for three reasons. First, he features all six of his backup singers in solo songs or parts of songs. Second, he wants every part of the band to shine, from the six-piece brass section that swings through “Sir Duke” to the 10 strings (all local musicians) who tore into “Pastime Paradise” with angry urgency. Members of the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church choir contributed potent backup elsewhere.
Third, Wonder speaks his mind at length. Before playing his first note, he reflected on recent events: “Part of my heart is very broken, because we as artists ... possess a desire to see a better world, to see people coming together. Yet it seems to me that all you people who are sighted are far more blind than me.
“My heart is broken about the people in Paris, the nine people shot in church in South Carolina, the kids shot in Chicago. All lives do matter. I just pray we get it together as human beings, because right now, we are pretty jacked up.” And his band swung into “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” the first song on “Key of Life” and an apt beginning on this chilly night.
Toward the end of the show, he morphs into a character dubbed DJ Tick Tick Boom, teasing the crowd with snippets of songs and demanding singalongs. (He’s big on those throughout.) Eventually, he breaks into a pretty complete “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” most of “Living for the City” and a long, raucous “Superstition.” (How can an ominous song about ignorance be such fun?)
But the climax of the show really comes earlier in “As,” the song in which Wonder vows (over the chanted word “always”) that his love will sustain itself “Until dear mother nature says her work is through/Until the day that you are me and I am you.”
“I hope you know I love you Charlotte,” he told the near-capacity crowd Saturday. Nobody could have doubted him.