It's been a pretty good couple of weeks for Corinne Bailey Rae.
First, she got three key Grammy nominations, which boosted her status as this year's hot newcomer a la Norah Jones/Alicia Keys. Then she had a prominent mention on Thursday's episode of the pop-culture-aware "Scrubs."
And Saturday she was the must-see buzz artist at Stevie Wonder's 11th annual House Full of Toys benefit at the Gibson Amphitheatre -- along with Wonder himself, of course.
The bill was hardly lacking talent, with Brian McKnight, Common, Tyrese, Al Jarreau, Jon B. and India.Arie, among others, giving, at times, thrilling performances. But even in that crowd, English singer-songwriter Rae lived up to the hype, at least as much as anyone could in the two-song slot she and most of the acts were given. Warm and engaging, Rae had no trouble making a very positive impression in her brief appearance. Blessed with a voice and an approach at once understated and immediately attractive, she offered in "Put Your Records On" and "Like a Star" songs that personalize a brand of jazzy pop-soul reaching back several generations.
The evening's emotional peak, though, came before Rae took the stage. At about the midpoint of the five-hour event, Wonder, who at the start had dedicated the show to his mother, who passed away in June, introduced O'Jays singer Eddie Levert, whose singing son Gerald died last month of a heart attack at age 40. The two embraced and brought the near-sellout crowd to its feet with a rousing version of the O'Jays' '70s hit "Love Train."
That was the hub on a spiritual wheel that spun through the show. Wonder at several points stressed the connection between the spiritual beliefs (not just Christian) of performers and audience members alike and the spirit of giving at the concert's core (fans were asked to bring toys to be distributed to needy children). And musically there was the lively gospel-salsa of opening act Danny Carreras, the stirring funk-soul-gospel of Donald Lawrence and the fiery neo-soul-gospel of Yolanda Adams, plus some testimony from young R&B;/hip-hop star Tyrese, who told the crowd that he'd recently rededicated his life to Christ.
Combined with Wonder's spirited role as host, it made for a balance of purpose and entertainment. The star kept popping up at unexpected times, strolling out to duet with Tyrese and even appear with comedian Chris Tucker, one of the night's emcees. With acoustic soulstress India.Arie, Wonder joined in (to her apparent surprise) halfway through a version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," which then evolved into a spontaneous duet of her on flute and him on harmonica before he coerced her into an unplanned performance of her recent single "There's Hope" -- another overtly spiritual turn.
And ultimately, no one could outshine Wonder this night -- not because he hogged the spotlight but because he's just, well, too good. His own closing set launched with a power-packed one-two punch of "Living for the City" and "Higher Ground" before settling into a series of romantic ballads. He capped the set with daughter Aisha singing one song and then his own gospel moment, teaming with singer Kimberly Brewer on "I Love You More." Family, friends and faith -- 'tis the season of Wonder.