All photos by Chase Stevens
This is supposed to be a review about Stevie Wonder headlining the first night of the Life is Beautiful Festival in downtown Las Vegas, but as Yeezus himself will tell you, all roads lead back to Kanye West, and this is no different.
West, who opened last year’s festival wearing a mask and backed by a towering column of light panels, once famously boasted:
"I'm not trying to compete with what's out there now. I'm really trying to compete with Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life,” he told USA Today in 2005, naming two definitive Stevie Wonder records. “It sounds musically blasphemous to say something like that, but why not set that as your bar?"
While West longs to follow in the footsteps of Wonder, it was the Motown legend who followed in the steps of the rap icon on Friday night.
Three days shy of the 39th anniversary of Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder’s most influential album, he took the stage as the opening night headliner for the music, food and art festival’s third year. The weekend's lineup also includes the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Imagine Dragons, Death Cab for Cutie, Run the Jewels and Weezer.
There was no column of light, no elaborate lighting rig and certainly no mask, but like Yeezy, the set was focused squarely on the artistry, reminding the crowd of everything that makes a live set—and by extension, festivals—great, and just whom they have to thank for it.
The 65-year-old, who had his ninth child in December, is still holding on to his trademark braids, even if they are ready to retire. Musically, however, Wonder was sharp and showed no signs of slowing down or slipping even as he loads up on the “lifetime” awards the music industry bestows on its aging icons.
The focus was on the music (in lieu of flashy footage or graphics, the stage’s backdrop simply displayed the festival’s logo), and Wonder did not take a single break throughout the two-hour, 20-song set.
Walking out to an elated crowd, Wonder kicked off the set playing ”How Sweet It Is” on a keytar. He shared his spirituality from the jump, saying he sometimes thinks of the song as “how sweet it is to be loved by God” and asking the crowd to “form a choir right here tonight.”
Fans heeded his command, rising to their feet as Wonder delivered renditions of “Higher Ground” (beckoning mental images of Beavis and Butthead’s movie rampage through Vegas) and “As If You Read My Mind.” Helming various keys, harmonicas and other instruments throughout the night, Wonder displayed the many talents that established him as a music prodigy. On a moving cover of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain,” Wonder took up a harpejji, a small stringed instrument played more like a piano but with an electric guitar sound.
Those talents, of course, come easy; Wonder’s biggest challenge was holding the attention of a diverse, weary crowd for a late, long set that kicked off just shy of 11 PM. With this year’s festival running a month earlier than before, the unforgiving desert heat had many fans booking it for the shuttles and parking lots before the set wrapped at 1 AM.
Halfway through the set, the band took a break to let Wonder solo on some ballads. Those songs, like “Overjoyed,” are key components of Wonder’s decades of songwriting, but by that point the crowd had little tolerance for anything slow and sweet. They wanted horns and funky Motown grooves.
It’s not hard to see why—Stevie’s backing lineup was arguably as compelling as he was, and his choice of musicians is much a testament to his artistry as his songwriting. Large-by-any-measure bass player Nathan Watts stood center stage behind Wonder’s keyboard setup, barely moving for the two hours like a giant groove totem dressed in black. Two percussionists, a drummer, horns, five backup singers, guitar and keyboard players all provided powerhouse support.
The concert wrapped with a playful series of duets between Wonder and his backup singers, a call-and-response designed to showcase their chops that meandered from tunes like “Summertime” to “Besame Mucho” to En Vogue’s “Hold Onto Your Love.” The musicians enjoyed a jam round of their own during a slate of solos on a decadent, nearly half-hour version of “Superstition.”
The marathon set also proved that Stevie’s still got it vocally, which is more than can be said for other legends whose talents have degraded and whose shows are fueled more by nostalgia than quality (cough, Robert Plant, cough, cough).
But if Stevie can hang in there, the question was whether the same could be said for the crowd. With just a few more songs left, Wonder asked the crowd: “You ready to go home?”
A dutiful “No!” roared up in response, but a few weathered festival-goers had the chutzpah to throw out a “Yes.”
Wonder, closing with Innervisions hit “Living in the City,” offered his unfettered passion and joy for performing until the final notes, and the crowd got as much or as little as they wanted. Some limped their way toward the gates, while others grooved on as Wonder belted on, “Just enough for the city…”
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Tovin Lapan is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco and Las Vegas. He is currently learning to play the child-sized accordion. His work has appeared in The Guardian US, Lucky Peach and San Francisco Magazine. Follow him on Twitter.