Stevie Wonder has been blessing the world with his music for over five decades. And as was clear from his nearly two and a half hour concert at the Chumash Casino Resort’s recently reopened and still-great-sounding Samala Showroom Sunday night, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Stevie started off by casually remarking to the audience, “So I guess y’all came to hear some music. Well, you know what, you came to hear it, and I guess we came to do it.”
To huge cheers, he then launched into a funky groove on a harpejji, an instrument that is an intriguing combination of a guitar and a keyboard, which turned out to be the song “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me,” followed by “Master Blaster (Jammin’).”
Perhaps not coincidentally on a hot July day, both of these songs are from his 1980 Hotter Than July album.
Here and for most of the rest of the show, he was joined by a smokin’ band consisting of two guitarists, two keyboardists, a bassist, drummer, two percussionists, trumpeter, saxaphonist and five background vocalists.
He then moved to keyboards — for those who care about these sorts of things, his set-up was a Vintage Vibe Vibanet and a Yamaha Motif XF8 — for the impossibly funky “Higher Ground,” followed by the brilliant Duke Ellington tribute “Sir Duke,” which got the crowd up dancing, and “I Wish,” a song that, as parents of young kids might know, got a new lease on life from its cover version on the Happy Feet soundtrack.
At this point someone in the crowd rightfully yelled out, “You’re amazing,” to which Stevie responded, “What you see in me is only in you.”
He then jokingly noted, “That’s a nice rap line!”
Things slowed down as Stevie moved to grand piano for “Saturn,” which he sadly noted is still relevant.
“We’re living in a time where we wish we could go and be somewhere else, where things are better,” he said. “But the only way we can make it better is by doing that, by making it better ourselves.”
He stayed on piano and sang soulful vocals on “Blame It on the Sun” and a new song that repeated the phrase “Once fate put us together, we’d stay in love,” which he led the men in singing (in comparison to Stevie, rather inadequately) to the ladies in the audience.
Next up was “Overjoyed,” which ended with a touch of Elton John’s song “Daniel” (with lyrics by Bernie Taupin, who incidentally has a ranch not too far from the Chumash Casino — perhaps that’s why it was on Stevie’s mind?).
This was followed by “Ribbon in the Sky.” Stevie had a bit of throat trouble, which led him to tell a funny flashback story of a similar situation when he was 16. The song ended with a super cool sax solo by Mike Phillips, a trumpet run by Dwight Adams, some harmonica by Stevie and then all three riffing off each together.
The anti-racism song “Living For the City” was next, which Stevie introduced by saying, “I want y’all to promise me that you’ll never see America like this again... It’s about moving forward, not backwards.”
Stevie then told an amusing story about running up a sky-high phone bill when he (deliberately) fell asleep while talking to a girl in Los Angeles, which led into a cover of “The Letter” by The Box Tops, which then became a medley with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “My Girl.”
At this point, about two hours in, things got strange. Stevie declared, “From now until the rest of the show, you will address me as DJ Tick Tick Boom,” and proceeded to play clips of songs by people who have recently passed away, including Prince, David Bowie, Glenn Frey and B.B. King.
Amusingly, he then started playing recordings of Stevie Wonder songs which he sang along to, exclaiming that “I sound like Stevie!”
DJ Tick Tick Boom morphed back into Stevie Wonder for arguably his greatest song — “Superstition,” which brought down the house over four decades after it first graced the airwaves.
What a treat to see and hear the national treasure that is Stevie Wonder in such a small venue on a Sunday night!
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.