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POP REVIEW : Wonder’s Humanity Shines in Riperton Benefit Concert

Times Pop Music Critic

Isn’t it strange how things sometimes work out?

The lure of Stevie Wonder’s benefit concert Sunday night at the Universal Amphitheatre was the opportunity to see the acclaimed pop figure performing here in a “small” hall with a band for the first time in a decade.

Wonder, who normally plays 16,000-seat arenas, did do a 1987 benefit at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but he was accompanied that night by only his own pre-programmed computer.

This time he was joined in the benefit, which raised an estimated $200,000 for the Minnie Riperton Fund of the Concern Foundation for Cancer Research and Concern II, by a six-piece band and four backup singers.

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So what happened?

The most absorbing moment was when Wonder was on stage alone.

Midway through his two-hour set, the most honored pop-rock performer in Grammy history sat behind a synthesizer and told the audience that he was going to introduce “Why,” a love song that may be on his next album.

It turned out to be a lovely piece of music, but the song itself wasn’t the most noteworthy aspect of the sequence. Wonder had pre-programmed a computer to play the melody, but it malfunctioned--twice.

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Rather than just go on to another number, Wonder was apparently so eager to get a reaction to the new number that he switched to the piano to play the song live. After a few seconds, however, he stopped. Wanting the extra punctuation of the computerized version, Wonder called an aide on stage to help reset the computer.

Assured a few minutes later that all was right at last, Wonder again pushed the computer keys hopefully. But again there was only a sputter. It must have taken 10 minutes for Wonder to finally get through “Why.”

The segment was typical of the intimate feel of Sunday’s concert--a welcome change from the occasionally stiff and overblown nature of his 1986 dates at the Forum.

Where the emphasis on show-biz flash in those shows made Wonder seem at times like someone concerned with competing with the flamboyance of Prince and Michael Jackson, he was on Sunday a man more secure with his own art. He was sharing his music, not merchandising it.

“I know this is not professional,” Wonder said jokingly at one point as he sat on the piano bench and used a throat spray device.

If the informal manner was endearing, the music itself was uneven. Because he was suffering from a cold, Wonder was not at his best vocally. He had trouble hitting some notes, a problem he acknowledged early in the evening. Though his outstanding rhythm section (including bassist Nate Watts, drummer Dennis Davis and percussionist James Allen) supplied an exceptionally funky edge to songs like “Higher Ground,” Wonder seemed to keep them in check.

It may have been that the vocal problems kept him from turning the evening into an all-out party or maybe he wanted to keep the mood more gentle and philosophical out of respect for Minnie Riperton. Wonder wrote “Lovin’ You,” which was a No. 1 single in 1975 for the singer, who died in 1979 of breast cancer.

That doesn’t mean the concert was by any means solemn. Wonder involved the audience in several sing-alongs and he rolled out some of his liveliest and most optimistic numbers.

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The challenge, however, for Wonder wasn’t to dazzle the crowd with his artistry, but to show his concern. A close friend of Riperton, the 38-year-old Wonder spoke movingly during the evening about the importance of frequent medical checkups and proper diet.

He also mentioned how someone close to him--an aunt who died recently--might have survived if her cancer had been detected earlier. Wonder also noted that the mother of a band member is now gravely ill.

This was not a night to weigh Wonder’s artistry, which has been clearly established over the years. It was a night to retest his humanity and warmth, and he passed that checkup with class. Comedian Louie Anderson opened the evening with a 45-minute monologue.


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