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POP REVIEW : STEVIE WONDER TAKES A WALK ON THE FLASHY SIDE

Times Pop Music Critic

On stage, Stevie Wonder doesn’t offer the charisma or controversial edge of Prince, the magical dancing or dramatic tension of Michael Jackson or the blue-collar heroism of Bruce Springsteen.

Yet Wonder may be the consummate figure in contemporary pop--a man whose body of work will be looked back upon with even more admiration and awe than that of half (or more) of the 10 musicians just inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So, Wonder’s first non-stadium concerts here in nearly six years figured to be an event on Friday and Saturday nights at the Forum.

In past shows, Wonder was pure-and-simple a musician, albeit an inspired one whose eagerness to share with his audience the exquisite songs he had put on record brought a sense of joy to the auditorium. There just wasn’t a lot of additional flash or personality.

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This time around, the 36-year-old singer-keyboardist-composer put more emphasis on show , both in flash (an in-the-round, revolving stage and overhanging video screens) and in manner (a looser, almost chatty approach between songs).

Most of these extras--including an especially belabored introduction of his musicians, complete with their astrological signs--were a waste of time.

Someone should remind Wonder that all he really needs to do is to play the music--with the same purity of performance as jazz and classical artists. On that level, no one in pop does it better than Wonder.

I’m not a fan of revolving stages. It’s distracting to have someone start singing a song as powerful as “Higher Ground” or as tender as “Isn’t She Lovely” while facing you, then watch him drift away, only to end up with his back to you. It’s a good thing Wonder’s five musicians and four back-up singers don’t get seasick easily.

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I also wasn’t a fan Friday of such counter-productive exercises as a punchless “comedy skit” (the blind Wonder was supposed to be behind the wheel of a moving car) and a closing lecture of sociopolitical beliefs.

All this was done in the spirit of letting us meet the real Stevie Wonder: his humor, his warmth, his message. But we already knew those things. His humor, warmth and message are what enrich his music.

“It’s Wrong (Apartheid)” expressed Wonder’s outrage over South African racial policies far more eloquently than his spontaneous remarks--just as “Sir Duke” conveyed all we need to know in concert about Wonder’s admiration for Duke Ellington, and “Whereabouts” tells us better than spoken words about loneliness and regrets.

Pop artists--notably Springsteen--can add to the impact of their socially conscious songs through deeply personal accounts, but it generally is better to simply let the songs speak for themselves, a point the musicians on the Amnesty International tour demonstrated.

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The extras Friday didn’t ruin the evening--or even come close to it. They only interrupted the pace of the more-than-three-hour show, making it sometimes seem disjointed and bloated.

At one point, the Rev. Jesse Jackson came on stage to salute Wonder for his music and humanitarian efforts, and stayed on stage to play a cowbell during a song. It was quite a contrast: Wonder in his white leather suit side by side with Jackson in a blue business suit.

When Wonder forgot about “show” and strung several hits together in no-nonsense fashion, the results were sometimes magical. While his skills as a songwriter and musician have long been acknowledged, he is equally remarkable as a singer.

Where most pop singers have trouble duplicating live what they have achieved in the studio, where they have the option of endless retakes, Wonder can match--almost effortlessly--the hardest notes on record.

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Wonder’s recent recording output hasn’t been as consistently satisfying as the ‘70s streak that netted him an unprecedented three straight best-album Grammys for “Innervisions,” “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” and “Songs in the Key of Life.”

However, he is showing signs of reasserting the ambition and excellence of the earlier period. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” may be sappy and “Part-Time Lover” a touch thin, but several other songs from his recent “In Square Circle” album stood up well at the Forum alongside his most respected hits, including “Higher Ground,” “Superstition” and “Isn’t She Lovely.”

In an age of so much self-importance in pop, it’s endearing that Wonder, in designing this tour, wanted to share more of himself with his audience. Maybe after all these years, he still doesn’t realize how much he has already shared.


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