Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Stevie Wonder @ O2 Arena, September 30

I didn't take any notes, I didn't think about how I'd review it during the gig, and it's now 8 days later... nevertheless I'd like to get a few things down about the Stevie Wonder gig I attended last week in London, other than the post I made before - probably for my own benefit more than anyone else's...

I've been telling people all week, when they've asked me "how was Stevie?", about the shitty crowd. And it's true, but why aren't I answering the question? Perhaps my expectations were too high ("...too high, too high, and I ain't ever coming down"), but I left feeling more satisfied than excited.

Part of this was because of the crowd - which, I forgot to mention, also showed its apathy by barely responding to Stevie's repeated attempts at crowd interaction. Partly it was because I was three rows from the back of a humungous big soulless stadium and watched most of the gig on the big screens. But partly, it was because Stevie wasn't as good as he could've been.

Everyone knows - and Stevie's 70s legacy is often even overshadowed by - that in the 80s, he really took a nosedive, exemplified (but not limited to) "I Just Called to Say I Love You" (which he played, second last). Well he played a few other ballads from that period which have nothing on several he omitted. Like every funk band is obliged to do (but every rock band is obliged not to do, huh) everyone had a moment in the spotlight to do a solo - but of 15 other performers on stage, about a dozen solos of 32 bars each takes a long time! And finally, he oversang a lot. I'll qualify that - near the beginning he did a segment where he was teaching the crowd to singalong, and progressively made it more complicated to see how long the crowd stayed with him, until he sang a ludicrously long and complex line and everyone burst out laughing and cheering. Great - we all know you've got a fabulous voice Stevie, and it's still there at 58. But then... it was like he was attempting to repeat that himself in songs, continuing to show off, mangling the melody we actually want to hear. The first time was impressive, the fifth time was not. I remember thinking - if this was a guitar solo, I'd be mocking it with a hand gesture.

During "Signed, Sealed, Delivered", Stevie started barking "Joss Stone! Joss Stone! Where is Joss Stone!?". I thought (hoped) he'd gone mad, but sure enough a leggy blonde in a wee black slip ran on from backstage, pins flailing about all over the place, and sat beside him at the piano. It was the worst guest appearance I've ever seen. She wailed - "ooh ahh! waah! oooh-oooh-wah-wah" etc - for about 30 seconds - OK mibbe a minute at most - and then ran backstage again, feet swinging wildly.


So anyway... I was probably a bit disappointed with the gig. There, I said it. I loved "My Cherie Amour", and "Living For The City", and "I Wish", and "Master Blaster (Jammin')", and "Superstition" at the end (which I can't really listen to anymore because I know it so well, but live it sounded like the greatest pop song ever written (which it is - either that or "I Was Made To Love Her", which he didn't play)); but a combination of factors - the crowd, the venue, and the performance - meant it was never going to match my expectations.

Stevie is one of my all-time heroes so I suppose I thought the gig would be one of my all-time greatest, and it just wasn't. I feel sad even writing this post! The satisfied feeling I had at the end was partly related to, like, having ticked that box, or something, which I don't want to be saying but I think is true. Looking back on it, I can't divorce my prior expectations of what it could have been from what it actually was, to appreciate that there was in fact loads of parts I loved, and therefore enjoy and be enthused by the memory. I wish I could.


zacabi said...

I was at the same gig and am surprised by how many negative reviews I have read.

I think the venue itself is largely to blame. Arguably, it is impossible to feel engaged when you’re sitting what feels like several miles from the performer, watching the show mostly on screens, like you’ve joined a bunch of people to watch a gig on a large TV, a gig that some other people are lucky to be at.

Also, in a place that size, the acoustics are going to be shocking and tricky to control; again, this will be more of a disadvantage for those in rubbish seats way up in the scaffolding. I was unlucky enough to have seats like this for Prince last year and did not enjoy the experience as much as I’d hoped.

I was obscenely lucky this time around. I won my tickets in a charity auction, tickets that had come from a corporate donor. They were five rows from the front of the lowest bank of seats, just to the right hand side of the stage. Stevie’s piano was positioned so he faced us as he played. We were close enough to see most of the band and the whites of the backing singers’ eyes. From here, the show ranked as possibly my all-time favourite, and I’ve seen a lot of gigs. The sound was good, although, admittedly, it was clearer in the quieter moments when fewer people were playing, and the detail was lost when the band was really going for it.

It helped that I am reasonably familiar with Stevie’s classic ’70s albums so his focus for the most part on this era, including slightly obscure album tracks and a generous offering of songs from Songs In The Key Of Life and Hotter Than July, was an absolute treat for me. I was surprised, but grateful, that he included only a smattering of choice cuts from before and after this period, as I’m less keen on his ’60s and ’80s stuff, although I’d forgotten how much I like Part-Time Lover and Overjoyed.

I loved the band’s solo spots but then I like jazz, where impromptu improvisation is commonplace. It should be expected that musicians of this calibre are going to go a bit off-piste given the opportunity and a musician of Stevie’s calibre is going to grant this opportunity. If people just want to hear the studio arrangements then they should stay at home and listen to the studio albums. On the other hand, I did not enjoy Stevie’s frequent and gratuitous vocal acrobatics. If I want that I’ll go to a Mariah Carey concert and that’s not going to happen. I would have been more cross if all this had been at the expense of his best songs but since he played just about everything I could have hoped for, it’s just all good.

The other thing that made this such a treat was that I was there with my wife; we’d been married just over 6 weeks and the exit music for our wedding ceremony was As. We almost let out a little bit of wee when he slipped this song in as a surprise closer after Superstition. Can you imagine?

So, we came away more than satisfied. We came away excited.

Ally Broon said...

thanks for sharing all that zacabi. Sounds like you enjoyed it a lot more then, from a better position in the venue, and it's great that he played your wedding song at the end (and it's great that your wedding song was As!).

My fault I think was in GETTING SO EXCITED! about it for months before the gig so that no concert could ever fully satiate that. I found myself thinking of a handful of songs I love the most and being disappointed that he didn't play them, rather than enjoying what he WAS playing.

I think that's called a SCHOOLBOY ERROR.

And, I was from 3 rows from the back. It's funny you mention your seating for Prince, because the only time I'd been to the O2 before was to see Prince last year and I was in a similar position then too! - and yeah, the acoustics were terrible, but I did really love that show. Prince performed from the middle of the floor though, so I was much closer to him, whereas I was at the opposite end of the building from Stevie. I've got good eyesight but could barely see him.

(There's a crude joke to be made somewhere there).