The prospect of a veteran pop act playing a career-defining album in its entirety as the focus of repertoire for a concert tour is nothing new. But outside of Roger Waters and his recently completed performance revival of the Pink Floyd epic The Wall, few artists have taken the album concert concept to an arena level.
Enter Stevie Wonder, 64, perhaps the most enduring and progressively minded artist from the golden age of Motown. Tonight, he makes an ultra-rare regional concert return with a KFC! Yum Center show built around a full performance of the album that served as the zenith of his commercial and creative visibility, 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life.
To appreciate the potency of the popularity behind Songs in the Key of Life, you have to consider the stylistic and artistic growth achieved by the four albums that preceded it. Those recordings – Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale – were cut and issued in whirlwind fashion between March 1972 and July 1974.
While Music of My Mind was the least commercially prominent of the pack, it redefined Wonder’s music with a modernized keyboard vocabulary (he performed nearly every instrument on the record) and compositions that shied away from Motown’s cherished pop soul formulas of the ‘60s in favor of a more contemporary funk and R&B groove. Talking Book and Innervisions quickly weaved a much stronger social urgency into the lyrics, yielding some of the most commanding hits of Wonder’s career (Superstition, Higher Ground and especially Living for the City). Fulfillingness’ First Finale was, by comparison, a cool, sophisticated exhale of a record.
Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year in 1974 and 1975. Songs in the Key of Life was given the same honor in 1977 after spending nearly three months atop the Billboard all-genre album chart and scoring four hits (including the charttoppers I Wish and Sir Duke).
Songs in the Key of Life had it all. Released as a double album with a bonus five-song EP, it contained some of Wonder’s brightest pop (typlified by the uber-popular radio smash Isn’t She Lovely, which, amazingly, was never released as an official single) as well some of his keenest social observations (as shown by the way-underrated Black Man, which was equal parts global anthem, history lesson and funk manifesto).
Tonight, it all comes to life onstage for the first time on a Kentucky stage. Forget the fact this music is nearly four decades old. Songs in the Key of Life will forever be in tune and of the times.