It was a typical Thursday lunchtime on a summer's day in L.A. entertainment business mecca Century City. Things were about to become special, however. As workers from the giant Creative Artists Agency and its neighboring offices began to file out into the large courtyard park behind the building to eat, shop and stroll, they were greeted by a portable stage with a drum kit, a couple of amplifiers and a keyboard set up. Someone would clearly be playing music here, but there was no indication as to who or why in fact, no signage whatsoever.
At first, it seemed the only people really interested were a few TV camera crews setting up in front of the stage. What they and only a few other people there knew was that, in a few minutes, one of the legends of 20th century music would be standing in front of the keyboards to announce his first U.S. tour in a dozen years. As the noon hour rolled around, word began to circulate. Someone asked; someone told. First 30, then 50 people gathered in front of the stage. Most of them were on their cell phones when CAA managing director Rob Light stepped up to introduce "an artistic icon and my friend" Stevie Wonder.
The last time the 57-year-old Wonder did anything that could be called a national tour was 1995's Charge Against Hunger/Natural Wonder Tour, which saw him performing with orchestras in 11 cities. It's not as if he's given up playing live since then, but when he has graced a stage, it's been for a show or two at a time, often a benefit performance. The often mercurial Wonder just seems to prefer it that way. Maybe he doesn't want to make the commitment to have to be at a certain place at a certain time for too long of a stretch.
As the familiar visage took the stage before a crowd that had reached triple digits with many, many more on the way, Wonder offered an explanation for his long-awaited return to more structured touring:
"On May the 31st of last year, I lost my mother ... traumatic experience for me. It was for ... all of our family. Approximately two weeks after my mother went to heaven there was a performance that was on the books for me to do to go and perform in Hawaii for a wedding. I had mixed feelings about it, because I was down, obviously. And then in my heart and spirit something said, 'You know, your mother would want you to go and have a really great time to actually be a part of helping someone celebrate the greatest moment of their lives.' It was then that I decided to go and perform in the spirit of Lula Mae.
"And so we went. We performed and it was the best thing that I could have done for my spirit because it was a way of me thanking God for the gift that He had given me of song and playing and having fun with the musicians and singers that were with me. And so I decided that I would use that as a mantra, as I've always done, to help me through and heal and remember the joys and celebrate her life, as best I was able to, and to celebrate love.
"Well, since that time I've done various things, various performances. But I thought, 'You know, what would be really, really wonderful and fun for me to do would be to go out and perform throughout this country, as we have a need for healing too. We have a need for love and we have a need for just sharing song and happiness and really enjoying this that we do have, and that is life.
"As I have been blessed with being able to sing and to write and to play, what better way can I thank God than to go out and share my love with you through song? So I thought of this idea and reached out to Rob Light of CAA and talked to people in my organization, and to my family and my friends. I said, 'What do you think of this idea?' They said, 'What?' I said, 'Why don't I go out and do some shows in sort of like open, very intimate venues and call it A Wonder Summer's Night, where we would perform and do songs and get people to bring their little tambourines and whatever they brought and make it really warm and intimate.' And so, I wanted to make the announcement to all of you that we're going to perform 13 cities and maybe even more as we celebrate love and life in a very wonderful, intimate place of excitement and we'll join together and have A Wonder Summer's Night.
"So that's what's up and I'm just excited to tell you about it, to be here with you, to let you know about it. And it will grow as we go along. I'm sure that at some point, we'll do a couple of benefit performances. We'll just have a lot of fun. The greatest joy in life is love, and I want to share my love with you through song. So get ready because we're going to have a really wonderful time."
And with that, Wonder's publicist stepped up to microphone and read the dates. When she came to the Detroit date, which she described as "his home native town," on Sept. 12, Stevie threw a fist into the air and gave D-town a shout out. Then, backed by his bassist and drummer, he offered up a half-hour sampler of some of the songs folks might get to hear at these shows, all gems from one of contemporary music's great catalogs: "Higher Ground," "My Cherie Amour," "Overjoyed," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," "Ribbon in the Sky," "Golden Lady" and "Superstition." At one point he asked for volunteers from the crowd now numbering about 500 who really thought they could sing. He got seven up on the stage and played backing musician for a not-half-bad version of the Carole King/Aretha Franklin classic, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." If Stevie wanted to reconnect with the people, he did a fine job of it that afternoon. The vibe wasn't unlike the Beatles on the roof of London's Abbey Road studio ... but without the bobbies and complaining neighbors, of course.
Afterward in a slightly more private setting above the courtyard, Wonder recalled the wedding in Hawaii that provided the catalyst for this tour as "an amazing experience." He remembered one point in the performance where he was about to break down, but held back the tears. But ultimately he did end up crying while playing "As," from his Original Musiquarium Volume 1 album, which he described as his mother's favorite song from his repertoire.
"It was the great blessing of being able to be there and give them what they wanted for a part of their celebration of marriage," Wonder says. "In that, I was able to find a kind of peace and solace and know that my mother would want me to take everything that I felt and put that in a positive place to bring some joy through the pain that I was dealing with."
And so he sees this tour "completely as a healing experience for myself and for people. It's for us to really come together and bond in this place that I take as being that common place of healing, using the bond of music to bring us all together."
Best of all, Wonder said these 13 shows may just be the tip of the iceberg. "I plan to go out, probably, after I finish doing a [new recording] project called Gospel Inspired by Lula my mother's name was Lula and do a completely different kind of tour. It'll include visuals and all that kind of stuff, because I have ideas in my mind. We'll actually have those things that you see in a lot of performances, but in the way that I view them in my head."
Music of his mind, indeed. And God knows we could all use a little healing these days.
Dave Schulps is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
Wednesday, Sept. 12, at Meadow Brook Music Festival, 3554 Walton, Rochester Hills; 248-377-0100.