For one of the greatest performers of the 20th Century, there’s very little live material afloat from Stevie Wonder, especially from his celebrated “golden age” in the 1970s. This man released a string of perfect albums in the 1970s (from “Music of My Mind” in 1972 to “Songs in the Key of Life” in 1976), yet never issued an official live recording during that period, which is a shame.
This is a bootleg of Stevie’s concert at the Rainbow in London, in 1974. Word was, back in the day, that this concert was going to be officially released, but later on Stevie changed his mind, saying the audio quality of the tapes wasn’t up to snuff. This is strange, because the bootleg is a soundboard recording, and has great sound. Everything comes in crystal clear.
If you take a look at this CD, the first thing that will strike you is the length of most of the songs. Seven minutes, eleven minutes, even eighteen minutes. You take a look at that 1974 date, take a look at Stevie’s large, multi-ethnic band (complete with electric guitar, keyboards, a great bassist), and you figure you’re in for some stoned-out mid-‘70s “hairy funk,” which was the style at the time. But, save for a few moments, that’s not the case. The majority of the running time on the longer tracks is given over to Stevie improvising while playing his clavinet alone; there are only a few moments of full-on funky jamming from the complete band. Which is a shame, especially for anyone who’s seen that great footage of Stevie on “Sesame Street” from 1972, playing “Superstition” live with his touring group; there they tear through the song and take names. (For anyone who wants to see this, search for it at YouTube.com.)
The concert opens with an eighteen-minute take of the rock/jazz instrumental “Contusion” (released two years later on the double LP “Songs in the Key of Life”), the house announcer introducing the star to the audience while Stevie’s band (aka Wonderlove) vamps through some solos. When I first saw the length of this track, I anticipated a workout of epic proportions, the band really getting into the groove. But instead, the whole affair is more of a twelve-minute warm-up. The bass will play for a few minutes, then the guitar, then some funky drums. Nothing locks together into “Contusion” itself until the final three minutes, and from there it sounds remarkably like the album version. So pretty good, but not the super-long fusion extravaganza I expected. However, warm-up or not, I can’t stress how funky it all is.
From there Stevie leads the band into some funky clavinet/drums jamming, with airy, wordless female vocals in the background. Two minutes in, Stevie cuts this off, telling the audience “We’ve gotta save that for later on in the show, we can’t do that now.” He then informs us that the first track we heard was “Contusion,” and then launches into “Higher Ground.” Again, this sounds much like the studio take, though Stevie has a different, more electronic (yet still funky) sound on his clavinet, which sounds similar to some of the keyboards on the Miles Davis fusion classic “On the Corner.” The band isn’t given much room to jam; it all sounds very much like the version on “Innervisions,” except the bass is a bit louder. However Stevie’s voice, I should mention, is strong throughout this song and the rest of the concert – he hits the same notes he hits in the studio takes.
Next we have “Superwoman,” off the truly unsung “Music of My Mind” LP. Feedback gets in the way of the first few lines, but from there it’s just Stevie, a smooth guitar, bass, and drums. Two and a half minutes in, Stevie calls “Everyone play,” and the band opens up for the final minute. The track is much shorter than the studio take found on “Music of My Mind;” here Stevie only sticks to the first half of the song (“Superwoman”), and skips the second half (“Where Were You When I Needed You”).
After the more melodic “Superwoman,” things get funky again with “To Know You is to Love You,” a song Stevie penned and produced for his former wife Syreeta, and which appeared on her first album. Here it’s stretched out to a bit over seven minutes, and the full band gets to jam the groove; unlike “Contusion,” they’re all playing together. A good portion of the song is given over to the band jamming on the riff, with Stevie’s backup singers moaning “To know you is to love you,” while the man himself provides some wordless vocals overtop. Lots of moments like this on the concert, by the way; Stevie’s fond of his “aahs” and such. As the track builds and builds, the funk gets deeper and deeper, with all kinds of wah-wah action from the guitar and clavinet.
“Signed, Sealed and Delivered” is next, again sticking close to the studio version. Not much to say about this one; the song precedes Stevie’s self-produced, “golden” era, so it doesn’t allow for the funky expressionism he brings to the later tracks in the set. But hell, the song’s a classic, and one of the best things Motown has in its catalog. It just doesn’t fit here.
“Visions” follows, ten minutes long, with the first three minutes given over to Stevie expressing his feelings to the audience over soft, soft guitar, bass, keyboard, and the occasional cymbal tap. He tells the audience he loves them, then the song officially begins. Again, it is very close to what you’ll hear on “Innervisions.” The song ends at seven minutes in…or does it? Stevie, for some reason so happy with his audience, decides to improvise a whole new verse. The music stays the same, that soft, jazzy dreaminess familiar from the godlike “Innervisions” LP. The crowd screams its appreciation at the end, and the track closes out Disc 1.
Disc 2 opens with “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” another “Innervisions” classic. Something’s happened midway, because now everything seems much louder than before. Maybe this is the audio problem which kept Stevie from releasing the show officially – the first half wasn’t recorded as well as the second? The song as performed here isn’t as full as the studio version. It’s more of an intimate affair, Stevie on keys, with the band quietly jamming behind him. It’s also not nearly as ebullient and frantic as the studio version. That is, until it kicks into a higher gear two minutes in. The guitarist has this warm tone throughout the concert, and here it’s put to good use, with him providing jazzy little notes and riffs. Again, there’s a big difference between the album version and this live version. Which is a good thing; who wants to go to a concert and hear songs that sound the same as their studio counterparts?
And now we come to “Living for the City,” that epic classic from “Innervisions.” Eleven minutes here, but again not due to the super-jamming you might expect (or even a re-enactment of the infamous mid-song “arrest” on the LP version), but due to Stevie improvising solo. It starts off just like the studio version, save with the Wonderlove backup girls adding vocals at the end of each verse. Stevie’s keys are brighter here than on the studio version, nearly ear-piercing at times. Now, we all know how the LP version features a staged arrest and lock-up halfway through the song. Here, Stevie just stops the song four minutes in, breaks for a few seconds, and then comes back jamming the theme on his keys. He prods the band to keep up with him (drums and bass only, with guitar eventually joining in), then directs the audience to clap along. From there on it’s Dictator Stevie; in between his vocal improvisations (“I’m sick of/Living for the city”), he painstakingly attempts to get the backup singers (and the audience) to not only sing the phrase “Are you tired now,” but also WHEN to sing it. “No, no, don’t repeat it AFTER me, sing it WITH me!” Stevie yells on multiple occasions. One can almost see him shaking that sunglass’d face in frustration. Finally, the band joins in for a full-on groove for the final minute.
“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” follows, here even longer than the preceding track. Only three minutes on “Talking Book,” here “Sunshine” is stretched to an unwieldy twelve minutes. My favorite part: Stevie introduces a member of Wonderlove who co-sings the song with him; after she sings “You are the apple of my eye,” someone in the audience whistles at her. Instead of dropping out of the track for more improvisation, here the group jams away in a jazzy groove. This then breaks down for a minute or two of Stevie solo on harmonica. Then the band comes back in on that jazzy groove. Stevie calls for “a little more edge” on his mic, then jumps into some scat vocals over the beat. Finally he cuts loose with that harmonica, the band opening it up a bit. But this track, despite it’s running length, is a bit too subdued. And I have to mention that Stevie treats us to his imitation of Gomer Pyle, singing the lyrics, for the last minute or two.
“Superstition” follows immediately thereafter, and I am so glad it’s here. Not only is this my all-time favorite Stevie Wonder song, it’s also just my favorite song ever. Stevie sticks to the funk here; no more of that soulful improvising over quiet backing. This is hard and heavy throughout its seven-minute running time. Even the guitar gets turned up to a tougher edge! It’s not as full-sounding as that “Sesame Street” performance mentioned above (mostly because Stevie had guys on sax and horn there; here he doesn’t), but it’s just as funky. Yes, the band hits on all cylinders here, and though I can’t say I like this version better than the studio take released on “Talking Book,” I have to say it rocks just as hard. But then it pulls a fast one, revving up the tempo four minutes in, into a hardcore-level pace. Stevie works the hell out of that clavinet, and the guitarist (I see him, waiting patiently throughout the show for the nod from Stevie) finally cuts loose. The band locks in on a bass-lead groove, with the guitarist shredding overtop. (But still, what I wouldn’t give to have him joined by Pete Cosey – he of “Agharta,” Miles Davis’ super-heavy guitarist around this time period.) And then, just when you think it’s all about to pound you into the dirt, the song gets even faster! Here the group officially takes over, the guitarist, bassist, and drummer just rocking the hell out of the tune. Without question, this track is the highlight of the concert. Eventually the group fades away, with Stevie’s keys floating up and taking over, leading us into the next (and final) track.
“Encore Jam” is how the CD labels this final song. “Encore Improvisation” would be just as good a title. It’s all Stevie improvisation, telling the audience how much he loves them, while the group provides quiet yet jazzy accompaniment. Stevie’s sure to let us know he did NOT write this song earlier; he’s making it all up as he sings. Sometimes this works out, sometimes it doesn’t; a few times Stevie has no choice but to make up words to finish the rhyme. It’s funny, at one point he sings to the crowd that if his future albums don’t please them, then that will only serve to make him try to do better! The track wraps up at six minutes, the crowd screaming, Stevie telling them he loves them, the guitarist throwing in one last, very Hendrix-ian solo (“Angel”-era Hendrix, that is), and it’s all over.
There are two Stevie Wonders: the soulful balladeer who gives us tracks like “You are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” and “Isn’t She Lovely,” but sometimes gets a bit too saccharine for his own good. And there’s the bad-ass Stevie, who gives us the fuzzed-out funk of “Keep On Running,” “All Day Sucker,” and “Do Yourself a Favor” (one of the greatest tracks in the Wonder catalog, a hard-hitting funk monster which can be found on his 1971 LP “Where I’m Coming From”). I would’ve preferred more of the hard-hitting funk Stevie on this bootleg, and less of the soulful improvising Stevie, but that’s just me.
The fact is, this is a great concert, with great sound, and it should’ve been released officially. Definitely hunt it down if you are a Stevie fan (and let’s face it, what excuse would you have to NOT be a fan of golden age Stevie Wonder?).