Tuesday, November 3, 2009

If There's a Rock & Roll Heaven, Then I Just Had a Near-Death Experience (Part 3)

The Garden was at a real high when Simon & Garfunkel ended their set. The best movie of the night followed, connecting the Motown years with the Civil Rights movement, ending with a picture of Obama. So obvious, yet, I have to say, I never saw it coming. Maybe because I was focused on the music to come. Stevie Wonder! The place went nutty.

Then, technical difficulties. There was no sound. We all watched as Stevie sat at the piano, tapping on the mike to no avail, getting increasingly agitated. With every silent minute, Wonder bobbed his head more and more frantically. Why didn't anyone go out to help him? It was not only uncomfortable to witness, but it sucked all the energy out of the building.

Finally, one live mike was found and, when Wonder yelled "Hello New York," the cheers were thunderous. This was, Stevie proclaimed, the 20th anniversary of his induction into the rock hall, and the 5oth anniversary of Motown Records. Were we ready to "turn this mutha out?" he wondered. Oh yeah, we were.

More sound problems followed, and after a loud "Aw shit!," Wonder sat down. OK, a little change was in order. "Can you hear this?" he asked. We could. "Is this good?" as he hit some keys. It was. Alright then. In honor of Bob Dylan, Stevie went into "Blowin' in the Wind." Great choice, great salute to rock history and a sing-songy tune to counter the sound problems.

Though the sound would continue to plague the performance for awhile, Wonder was undeterred. "Wanna hear some Little Stevie Wonder?" he asked, as if referring to another person. "Uptight," with vocals a tad muted, led it off, then Stevie stopped abruptly and soared into "I Was Made to Love Her." He had the crowd going now, and pushed them further with "For Once in My Life," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," and "Boogie On Reggae Woman." The short, Vegas-y versions, not as short as a medley, not as long as a regular version, bugged me. His songs are too good for that kind of treatment. The sound was still not perfect and, though I love Stevie Wonder, I couldn't help but pray that this better be fixed in time for Bruce.

A litany of guests were scheduled to play during the set. The first was Smokey Robinson, who came on for "Tracks of My Tears." John Legend came on to do a bit of Marvin Gaye with "Mercy Mercy Me." Legend is fine, but he's no Marvin. No one is. Wonder invited his guest to sit at the piano and a remarkable thing happened next.

In tribute to Michael Jackson, Stevie began a pulsing version of "The Way You Make Me Feel." Watching on the video screen, it seemed as if Wonder was having a seizure and, with his singing suddenly halted, there was a bit of confusion. Then it became apparent that he was breaking down, weeping hard over the death of his fallen comrade. Stevie got it together and resumed the song, urging the crowd with "All hail Michael Jackson. We love Michael Jackson. Long live Michael Jackson." It was the most genuine emotional moment of the night. Wonder also paid respects to Lennon, Hendrix and Marley, but he Michael on his mind.

B.B. King slowly made his way onstage for a swing at "The Thrill is Gone." B.B. and Lucille left and Stevie performed "Living For the City." From there, he tore into "Higher Ground," Sting joining on bass. "Higher" dovetailed into "Roxanne," and the song never sounded better than with Wonder wailing on "red light." Then, back to "Higher," and out.

The last guest of the night was Jeff Beck. The connection here is that Wonder had written "Superstition" and was giving it to Beck, but then recorded it first for a hit. Some bad feeling there, but that was 35 years ago. Tonight, Beck was there to tear it open, and he did.

That's was it. Stevie stood up and said "we gotta go." The crowd gave out a big cheer for the Yankees score, a 3-1 victory over the Phillies in Game 2. Now, we all waited for Bruce.

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