Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012
Outside Lands Festival, San Francisco
Better than: Seeing any show.
Stevie Wonder, in theory, is an American artistic treasure. He's more than our Beatles or Rolling Stones; he's our Dickens or Dalí: a figure of impassable recognition, discussion, talent, love, and national pride. In theory.
In practice, however, Stevie Wonder is an experience.
Less than three minutes after Stevie Wonder takes the main stage on the final night of San Francisco's Outside Lands festival, keytar in hand and that beaming, always-loving smile of his worn proudly, he decides that it's time for the first singalong of the night. It was one of many. Where other musicians would wait for the middle of their set to lead the crowd in singing, when the School of Wonder is in session (as he calls it) you're not allowed to simply watch.
The School of Wonder doesn't just force the crowd to sing and dance along, there's a message, too. That comes about four minutes into the first song, and it's a message of universal love, appreciation for one's own fortune, the end of racism and hatred, the acceptance of all, giving to the less fortunate, and unity as a nation supporting President Barack Obama ("We gotta be together as a nation for real... not talk a buncha bull" he says).
At first, the San Francisco crowd greets the political portion of the School of Wonder much more warmly than the participation portion. That is, the crowd hasn't quite realized the extent to which tonight's headmaster will make sure that they sing and dance and get the entire Stevie Wonder experience. He isn't here simply to entertain us, but to make sure we're entertained, full of his universal love that is his gospel to spread.
And spread it does. His own songs are part of the New American Songbook, and his cover selections of are big a part of who Stevie Wonder is. His Motown selections are, of course, a nod to his time at that legendary label. His other cover selection, "The Way You Make Me Feel," is a dedication to his friend Michael Jackson. Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do" comes with a story about listening to the song as a kid. For a legendary presence like Wonder, songs that mark different eras and people in his life are one and the same as the undisputed classics of New American Songbook. In the School of Wonder, we don't sing the Americana of "Oh Susanna" and "Home on the Range," but "My Girl" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)."
If the San Francisco crowd was its usual reticent self for the first singalong, the reluctance is all gone by the end of the first quarter of the set, when Wonder leads the crowd in singing a verse of "Imagine." After that, we get it. When he says sing, you sing. If you know the words, you sing. And if you aren't dancing -- well, who isn't dancing?