Stevie Wonder has been offering some version of his House Full of Toys benefit and toy drive nearly every year since 1996. Often, Stevie acts as the host to a traditional Christmas show, dotting the multi-hour lineup with celebrities and talented newcomers–the first time I ever heard the names of Erykah Badu, Esperanza Spalding or India Arie was at one of these shows. His own headlining performances were sometimes brief, but always contained many moment of inspired perfection that were sweet enough to ward off any complaints. This year’s edition of the show surpassed all expectation, with Wonder delivering the first-ever performance of two of his most beloved albums from the early seventies, Talking Book and Innervisions, in their entirety.
The list of celebrity guests was short but sweet, for the most part, with memorable performances from Andra Day with Common, Pharrell Williams, tap legend Savion Glover, vocalist Jade Novah, Australian singer Glenn Lumanta, sax player Mike Phillips (he can hold a B flat while running around the stage for like ten minutes, wowee), and a supremely gracious and professional opener from Tony Bennett, seemingly in fine voice despite mishaps with the microphone. Many singers has visible problems with their mics seeming to be turned off at crucial moments.
Pharrell was definitely the audience hit of the first set, which saw the appearance of most of the special guests. You may have heard “Happy” enough times to make you want to puke, but I thought it was very cute watching all these people with kids, dancing around the Staples Center to a live performance of the kid’s favorite song, being played by the original artist, and Stevie adding his signature vocal styling to the choruses.
Andra Day and Common traded verses on the slow-burning R&B rap “Stand Up For Something”, balancing her powerful pipes against his socially-conscious flow. There are always traditional Christmas songs–in this case, Lumanta’s melismatic “Silent Night” and Nova’s confident, soulful take on “O Holy Night” and they seemed to have inspired Wonder’s impromptu busting into “What Christmas Means To Me.” He sang two full verses with accompaniment from the couple of band members that knew it, before calling it off. Like I said, these nights lend themselves to impromptu moments.
In the few minutes given to Dave Matthews and his song “Curve”, I heard the sound of every 80s conscious-rock artist like Peter Gabriel, Sting, Paul Simon, Tracy Chapman, all balled up into one big festival-ready package, and his appeal at such an event suddenly made sense to me. Stevie’s band are his kind of people – fusion-level instrumentalists who enjoy playing a lot of notes and making it look easy and casual.
Wonder returned to play Talking Book, and in standard form, was generous with his special guest spots, including a turn at the mic from Matthews on “Superstition.” He also brought out Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves, who sang the opening chorus on the studio version of “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” –pity they too had trouble with the mic, and the four lines they were brought out to deliver could barely be heard. Another guest from the original album sessions, Ray Parker Jr., fared better, pumping out the muscular rhythm guitar to “Maybe Your Baby”. “You And I”, played as a duet between Wonder and a second keyboardist, achieved a shimmering perfection of his best ballads. “Big Brother” had Wonder playing what looked like a stringed instrument of some sort, and the Brazilian-flavored “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” worked an unstoppable rhythm section.
As if Wonder sensed that some people were starting to call it a night as eleven o’clock came and went, the second Innvervisions set started off even sparkier than the one preceding it. More of the first set’s guests came back, Common taking a verse on “Visions”, and Pharrell joining in on “Golden Lady” and “Higher Ground.” Best of all was Andra Day, who sang the hell out of “All Is Fair In Love”. While the sound balance was troubling throughout different points of the night, Wonder himself was as focused and committed as I’ve seen him. Both his voice and musicianship are at what feel awfully close to their career height.
It felt like the whole thing could have used a big-gang wallop to tie it all together at the finale – he’s certainly got enough hits to put together a medley to end all medleys – but the evening ended like the album on the lesser-known jam “He’s Misstra Know It All. ” Given the lateness of the hour, we forgave the lack of an encore and headed home a little more joyful, as much as one can ask for from any holiday party.