“I’m going to be singing this whole time, so get ready,” one attendee laughingly declared to her neighboring seatmates at Stevie Wonder’s annual House Full of Toys Benefit Concert. But not to worry.
Wonder and his guests — including Gregory Porter, Trombone Shorty and Jody Watley — had everyone inside Los Angeles’ sold-out Microsoft Theater singing and dancing along to each and every note Saturday evening (Dec. 17). Just Wonder playing a few notes on his harmonica in the wings before walking onstage with the evening’s musical director/longtime friend Rickey Minor was enough to send the audience into a cheering frenzy even before the concert got underway.
House Full of Toys, presented through Wonder’s nonprofit We Are You Foundation, benefits children, people with disabilities and families in need with concertgoers donating an unwrapped toy. Now in its 24th year, the performer lineup featured Trombone Shorty who had attendees second-lining a la his native New Orleans when he joined Wonder onstage for an exuberant romp through “Sir Duke.” Prior to that, Jody Watley took fans on her own nostalgia tour, performing her 1989 R&B/pop hit “Real Love” before segueing into a classic from the traditional holiday special A Charlie Brown Christmas, “Christmas Time Is Here.”
Meanwhile, Gregory Porter’s sonorous voiced blanketed the venue with “Take Me to the Alley,” the title track to his 2016 album. “That’s what we’re here for,” added Porter afterwards, referencing the hungry, homeless and others going through life struggles. “That’s why I had to sing that song.”
Rounding out the lineup of performers were Tina and Teddy Campbell, the John Paul McGee Trio with Amber Bullock, Kimberly Brewer and Wonder’s daughters Zaiah and Nyah. The pair danced together on a holiday song that Wonder recorded in the late ‘60s, “One Little Christmas Tree,” and returned later to sing along with their dad on the standard “The Christmas Song.” Lucky Daye was also scheduled to perform but canceled owing to not feeling well.
As always in years past for this holiday concert — and with no offense to the guest stars who have appeared — the night belonged to Wonder. The legend gave as good as he got from an already enthusiastic audience that became more ecstatic each time he sat down at the keyboards or piano and simply sang. Early in the show, Wonder boosted the festive spirit already resonating around the venue when he performed “What Christmas Means to Me,” singing to the original instrumental track recorded back in the ‘60s.
Shifting from a raucous sing-along to “I Wish,” one of his many classics, Wonder celebrated the 50th anniversary of his 1972 album Talking Book. Beginning with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” he then saluted his late ex-wife and co-writer Syreeta Wright (“Such a wonderful spirit”) with the moving “Blame It on the Sun” before closing the Book suite with an emotional turn on “You and I (We Can Conquer the World).”
Said a tearful Wonder after an ensuing standing ovation, “I love all of you so much. I give all praise to God for all the songs I’ve written or co-written. If you understand love, you can’t spend one second entertaining the spirit of hate … Let’s show the world how to love again.”
With the clock ticking down to after 11 p.m., Wonder gifted the audience with a mini-concert. The set list included “Do I Do,” “I Love You More” with the aforementioned Brewer, “As,” “Ribbon in the Sky,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground.” Closing with another Talking Book selection, the crowd-pleaser “Superstition,” Wonder brought his children and the concert’s entire staff onstage.
Before walking offstage to “Another Star,” a smiling Wonder said, “I wanted to give you all everything I could give you … I love you; God bless you — and we are done!”