Stevie Wonder Live from Red Rocks: It sounds like the title of a multi-Platinum double-LP set from 1982. Yet the R&B icon somehow went more than 50 years without performing at the famed open-air amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado.
That is, until Monday (June 24), when Wonder, bathed in a purple spotlight, finally took the stage just past 9:00 p.m. in front of the breathtaking geology structures as Denver’s city lights glowed in the distance. The wait was worth it: Though the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer admitted early on to being out of sorts vocally (he even stopped the show to sip both mint tea and some sort of cayenne pepper-apple cider vinegar elixir), an engaged and emotionally connected Wonder — the centerpiece entertainment for the 5th annual SeriesFest television extravaganza — stormed through 16-and-a-half hits in two hours.
Per a mandated curfew, Wonder had to wrap at 11 P.M. sharp; the memories will last much longer. Here are five highlights from the legendary artist’s long-awaited Red Rocks debut.
1. A Mile-High Welcome
Wonder mistakenly referred to the concert venue as “Red Rock” during the set, even freestyling a jam to the slightly altered name on the piano before his third song. It’s only fitting that he then launched into a soaring rendition of his 1973 hit “Higher Ground.” (Red Rocks, after all, has an elevation of 6,435 feet.) The sold-out audience of 10,000 — most of whom stood throughout the entire concert, and many of whom were either buzzed or got a contact high thanks to the state’s cannabis law — went with the flow.
2. Special Guest Star: Usher
“A good thing about being a singer is knowing other singers,” Wonder said before introducing his friend Usher. The younger star took the mic and did a smooth take on 1982’s “Ribbon in the Sky.” Perhaps to assist the hoarse Wonder, he stuck around for two more songs… to interesting results. An attempted duet on ’80s hit “Overjoyed” went astray in a hurry, as Wonder tried and failed to feed Usher the lyrics in real time. (His reply: “You’re talking too fast!”) As for 1970 classic “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” Usher visibly gave up the cover mid-way through and instead jumped on the piano to do some impressive Moonwalk-esque moves. An “A” for effort, anyway.
3. Love Is in the Air
Nobody — nobody — can belt a soul ballad like Stevie Wonder. And he was in an especially amorous mood on this evening. Before even sitting down at the piano for his first song, he gave a shout-out to his longtime friends, natural gas billionaire Michael Smith and his wife, Iris, in honor of their 40th anniversary. (He even encouraged the audience to stand and cheer for the local philanthropists.) Jaunty romantic bliss was a thread throughout the concert, as Wonder included wedding staples such as “My Cherie Amour,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” That first number, Wonder mentioned in genuine disbelief, is now a half-century old.
4. Stevie Does Lennon
None of “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Part-Time Lover,” “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” “Fingertips” or “I Was Made to Love Her” were to be found in the evening’s setlist. But Wonder did perform a plaintive cover of the John Lennon classic “Imagine” for his penultimate number — a statement piece that he’s incorporated on his tours since the 1990s, and which he noted as being “still relevant,” despite originally coming out in 1971. The version was more call and response, as Wonder prompted the audience to sing along by calling out the lyrics. They also lit up the stands with their Smartphone bulbs. Not quite the same effect as those old-school lighters.
5. Let’s Get Funky
Oh, yeah, he could feel it all over. Wonder was in fine funky form at Red Rocks, his newfound raspy voice perfectly suited for Songs in the Key of Life scorchers “I Wish” and “Sir Duke.” The harmonica instrumental alone during 1968’s “For Once in My Life” elicited hoots and hollers. He brought it all home with his capper, 1972 Hot 100-topper “Superstition.” Only the legend could stretch a terrific four-minute radio smash into a rousing 10-minute finale, using a piano interlude to introduce every single member of his expansive band (plus six back-up singers!). They all strutted arm-in-arm off the stage, The Wiz-style. “I always try to do my best,” Wonder said triumphantly. “But it’s time for me to go home!” He earned it.