Stevie Wonder at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

Paul Wellman

Stevie Wonder at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

Stevie Wonder at the Bowl

Isn’t He Lovely? “A Wonder Summer Night,” at the Santa Barbara Bowl, August 28.

Toward the end of one of the Bowl’s most anticipated shows in years, a spirited and ever skillful Stevie Wonder conducted the crowd in an album-ready rendition of his 1985 hit “Part Time Lover.” As the men “duh duh duh duhhed” the beat and the women hummed the higher notes, we witnessed the blind, onetime child prodigy from Detroit doing what he’s always done best: getting people to rise up, sing along, and, most importantly, smile.

By Paul Wellman

Stevie Wonder with daughter Aisha Morris at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

It’s been 12 years since Stevie did an American tour, so it only made sense that he spent a few minutes before the music began to explain why now. With his daughter Aisha Morris at his side - the muse behind “Isn’t She Lovely” - Wonder called on the crowd to admire his daughter, “but don’t look too hard,” he joked, “because blind man carry shotgun.”

By Paul Wellman

Stevie Wonder with daughter Aisha Morris at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

He grew more serious when talking about the death of his mother last year. She was the one who taught Stevie that “just because I was blind didn’t mean I was blind,” and that he should “discover all there is in the world.” To fulfill one of her dying wishes that he spread some joy, he’s doing this spur-of-the-moment tour to say thanks to all his fans, and even the press, who’ve been so kind to him ever since he broke onto the scene as a 13-year-old from Motown.

Of course, it would be impossible not to be kind to Stevie Wonder, whose performance last Tuesday showed he hasn’t skipped a beat - his one-of-a-kind vocals, which forever teeter on the pleasant side of cracking, were flawless, his timing impeccable, and his stage presence personable and mesmerizing. With 11 players in support - including three sets of drums, two additional keyboardists, and three back-up singers, one of whom was Aisha - he played all my favorites: “Sir Duke,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Isn’t She Lovely” (with Aisha at his side, quipping at the end “even though she made me a grandfather”), “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” “I Wish,” and “Sunshine of My Life,” which was recently the first dance at my wedding. (Though he did skip my top favorite, “Boogie on Reggae Woman.”)

By Paul Wellman

Stevie Wonder with daughter Aisha Morris at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

And he was funny, causing his band to even bust out earnest grins, such as when he stood up to talk about writing one song for a girl when he was a 15-year-old trying to get some action. “All I got was a smile and a kiss on the cheek. I didn’t get nuthin’,” he chuckled. Then he reconsidered, “Well, I got something,” and jumped into “My Cherie Amour.”

But it was during “Love’s in Need of Love Today” (when he improvised “I can’t believe in the year 2007 / We’re talking about World War III” and got the crowd to yell “Stop It!” in unison) and “Higher Ground” (which goes “Powers keep on lyin’ / While your people keep on dyin’”) that Stevie Wonder’s message was most deeply felt. He was visibly upset - as we all should be - that lyrics written in 1973 for the Vietnam War are still relevant today.

By Paul Wellman

Stevie Wonder at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

Musically speaking, Wonder, who alternated between his grand piano and his electrics, was most wondrous during “Ribbon in the Sky.” The song allowed him to flex his voice to the limits, and also reminded that his style is uncategorizable - he’s got jazz fused with blues mixed with Latin stirred with R&B shaken with, these days, even a touch of hip-hop scatting.

Though he’s often hailed as someone who revolutionized songwriting, this “Wonder Summer Night” proved his legacy is much stronger: Stevie Wonder broke the mold, and no one’s come close to putting it back together. What a remarkable pleasure and privilege to see him live.

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