Early into his 21st annual House Full of Toys charity concert, Stevie Wonder declared, “We ain’t playin’ around here, y’all.” And Wonder proved that during a nearly four-hour show that not only featured stars such as Tony Bennett, Pharrell Williams and Common, but also took fans down memory lane via performances of two of his classic albums: 1972’s Talking Book and 1973’s Innervisions.
This isn’t the first time Wonder has performed one of his albums in its entirety. His Songs in the Key of Life Tour in 2014-15 was inspired by his re-creation of the 1976 double-album at his 2013 House Full of Toys. But this year marked the first time that the charity event was staged at downtown Los Angeles’ Staples Center after a long run at the Microsoft Theater.
Before introducing his first guest, Wonder spoke about the ill will enveloping the world. “Unfortunately, there are too many people in high positions that are creating negativity,” said Wonder to thunderous applause, “when there needs to be a celebration of life for every human being.” Referencing countries like Libya “that are enslaving African people—unacceptable—we’re here to celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hannukah and other holidays in the spirit of love. It’s not about the religion that you believe in but the relationship you have with the God that you serve.” Then Wonder, in tandem with a crackerjack band led by Emmy Award-winning music director Rickey Minor got the party started.
Wonder reiterated all evening that the concert had to end at 11:30 p.m. However, as most fans know, Wonder is no stranger to going into overtime. Thus, during an evening jam-packed with special guests, Wonder’s state-of-affairs comments (“You cannot let the Internet be your weapon of hate. If you’re not about unity and oneness, you’ve got a problem”), a few technical difficulties and Wonder’s own confessed need for a backstage pit stop, that 11:30 curfew was soon history—much to the delight of the full house inside the Staples Center.
Here are five of the evening’s most resonating takeaways:
A double-dose of legends: Watching two icons jam side-by-side is a rare opportunity. But Wonder delivered such a gift to the packed house when he welcomed pop legend Tony Bennett to the stage. Emerging to a cacophony of cheers, shout-outs and applause, Bennett and Wonder segued into “For Once in My Life” (a 1968 R&B/pop hit for the latter). When his mike malfunctioned at the start of the song, a calm Bennett rolled with the punches and gave the audience a thumbs-up as he began the song again — delivering a strong, nuanced performance belying the multiple Grammy winner’s 91 years. A harmonica-playing Wonder chimed in on that song and the next: Bennett’s own signature classic, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Again, Bennett brought the house down with his still-agile vocal prowess.
Cause and effect: Andra Day and Common underscored two of the evening’s recurring themes — unity and social consciousness — with a riveting performance of Day’s “Stand Up for Something” from the film soundtrack for Marshall. On their heels, singer-guitarist Dave Matthews and the tight, Minor-led band (including renowned session man/guitarist Paul Jackson Jr.) ripped through a rousing version of his namesake band’s popular 1998 single “Crush.” Afterwards, Wonder teased the audience with a snippet from his holiday perennial “What Christmas Means to Me.”
Roof-raising with Pharrell: Williams and Wonder traded verses back and forth on Williams’ 2013 global smash “Happy” as the audience keyed up its own boisterous sing-along to the song’s infectious chorus. Noted Williams of Wonder: “We’re in the presence of a global treasure. We sing Happy Birthday a different way because of him.” To Wonder, he added: You can call me for anything and it will be a yes.”
Revisiting Talking Book: As the evening progressed, so did the anticipation of hearing Wonder perform songs from Talking Book and Innervisions. Finally, at 9:52 p.m., Wonder teased, “I guess I’m supposed to do some music now.”
“Listening to these two albums [both No. 1 on the R&B chart], I got a chance to critique what I can’t change. I can’t unring that bell,” Wonder continued. “But I did ask myself, do I still like those songs? Do I feel that [same] joy in my heart? Am I still optimistic? Can I still get that groove in? And I said yeaaaaaah.”
Then Wonder swung into the midtempo groove of the Talking Book opener “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” Joining him were two of the song’s original backing vocalists, Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves. Joining Wonder on the album’s second track, “Maybe Your Baby,” was its original featured guitarist, Ray Parker Jr. The magic that still filters through Wonder’s vocals and musicianship was showcased on the ballad “You and I” — during which a male fan sitting in the upper reaches of the Staples Center proposed to his girlfriend. As the video monitors zeroed in on the kissing couple, Wonder wished the pair “all the love and a long life.” Then Matthews returned to join Wonder in a rollicking audience sing-along to the gem “Superstition.” Of his unexpected crying while performing the tune “Blame It on the Sun,” Wonder apologized, saying “I got too emotional.” Before taking a 10-minute intermission, he closed out the set with the album’s final two songs, “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will be Forever).”
Innervisions Redux: Post-intermission, it was a stripped-down version of the earlier full band that powered through a faithful and mesmerizing rendition of this equally popular album. Getting down to business on both the keyboards and harmonica, Wonder kicked off with “Too High” before ushering Common back for the album’s introspective second cut “Visions.” Adding a moving freestyle rap to the mix, Common talked about “corrupt systems and politicians” but also of still being “free at last.”
“This is a new coming of age … No more misogynistic songs,” Common continued as the audience cheered its support. “I close my eyes and imagine what is the look of love, pure and kind. Wild fires until the fire next time … Stevie, these are the visions in my mind.”
Another sing-along to “Living for the City” morphed into the mellow groove “Golden Lady,” during which Williams rejoined Wonder onstage. Day also returned for an emotionally hard-hitting duet on the heartbreak ballad “All in Love is Fair.” Then at 12:05 a.m. Wonder wrapped the final ribbons around his 21st annual House Full of Toys with the seat-rocking hit “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and Innervisions’ final track, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All.”