Rapper Kendrick Lamar made news last week with the release of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” a nuanced political album from a Christian perspective that is as worried about the state of the country as that of his soul and integrity. Tuesday night at the Smoothie King Center, Stevie Wonder reminded an adoring audience that he recorded his version of that album 40 years ago when he released the two-disc set “Songs in the Key of Life.”
Wonder’s album brought his golden period in the 1970s to an end with an ambitious, emotionally complex sprawl of music that tried to represent a broader musical account of the African-American experience that two records would allow.
He never performed the album in its entirety until his current tour, and with more than 30 musicians — including a string section from New Orleans — on stage at one point or another Tuesday, Wonder was able to fully realize the album, from the Beatlesque psychedelic fantasia of “Village Ghetto Land” to the crushing funk of “Black Man.”
There were four full percussion rigs, three keyboard players in addition to Wonder, six horns, five backing vocalists, vocalist India.Arie and the rhythm section of Nathanial Watts and Raymond Pounds, who along with band leader Greg Phillinganes have played with Wonder since the ’70s.
That musical lineup made it clear during “Love’s in Need of Love,” the album and concert’s opener, that Wonder and his band were able to reproduce the album in all its sonic richness.
Replacing a keyboard with live strings added irony to “Village Ghetto Land,” but that same substitution oversweetened “Isn’t She Lovely.” The jazz fusion instrumental “Confusion” was slight on the album, but it gained additional urgency live as the two guitarists athletically shared its wiry lead. “Sir Duke,” on the other hand, bordered on hammy as the live energy seemed to lead everybody to play up the song’s theatrical core.
More often, though, Wonder and his band relived the music, including its emotional ride. Many of the best moments came during album cuts that stretched out as Wonder explored emotional nuances in repeated choruses.
“Joy Inside My Tears” intensified as it went on, as did “Summer Soft,” where the song’s wave-like energy surged each time Wonder shouted “and she’s gone,” as the outcome he can’t escape circles back again and again.
Throughout, Wonder was in remarkable voice. He could not only access all the high and low notes, but he could do so with feeling. His audience ranged from people who grew up with him to those who discovered him as a funk icon. Those 20- and 30-somethings bounced to their feet excitedly for “Pastime Paradise,” the song sampled by Coolio for his 1995 hit, “Gangsta’s Paradise.”
“Songs in the Key of Life” was indulgent, but Wonder made most of those indulgences pay off. Tuesday night, some didn’t.
At one point, he sat at a zither-like instrument called a harpejji, where he played a sublime instrumental version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” — a song Wonder covered in 1966 — but then he segued into the Champs’ “Tequila,” which seemed easy and random, and then Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” which prompted the most uninhibited dancing of the night.
Earlier, Wonder talked about how musicians love to jam, but this jam spent 10 or so minutes going nowhere. Almost every musician featured during it made more interesting contributions in other songs than they did in that segment.
Throughout, Wonder was playful and more three-dimensional than he often seems when he’s trotted out on award shows to be the voice of something meaningful.
The best thing about the instrumental jam was the obvious pleasure he took in playing with the sound of words, slurring and adding letters to words like a punk trying to get under your skin.
Unfortunately, he seemed like an old man when the album concluded and he celebrated it as “real music” — an obvious shot at electronic music — and made matters worse with an ill-advised skit in which he declared himself “DJ Chick Chick Boom” and tried to get his iPhone to decide if a $100 bill was real or not. The phone didn’t do what it was supposed to, but the joke’s premise was too clichéd to make it worth the effort in the first place.
Sadly, Wonder suddenly seemed like a guy who can’t understand why kids these days can’t hike up their pants and turn their hats around right.
He redeemed the misstep with a finale of “Higher Ground,” “Uptight” and “Superstition,” which hit with surprisingly fierce power. Those songs and the album he had just finished performing were reminders not just of Wonder’s funk credentials but that he belongs in conversations about socially conscious funk forerunners.
Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield have been getting shout-outs in reviews of Kendrick Lamar’s album, but Wonder was there with just as much passion, idiosyncrasy, hope and soul. Tuesday night’s show suggested he’s still there.
“Killing plagues the citizens unless they own police,” he sang, then ad-libbed, “Still in 2015. Can you believe?”