On December 10th, the Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA, was for the very first time the site of Stevie Wonder’s “House Full of Toys” benefit concert (now in its 21st year), which highlighted a strength and unity among not only the evening’s performers, but the audience. At the forefront was Wonder, who, along with Music Director Rickey Minor, band, and backup singers, performed every song off the Talking Book (1972) and Innervisions (1973) albums. Wonder was joined by the legendary Tony Bennett, Andra Day, Common, Dave Matthews, saxophonist Mike Phillips, guitarist Ray Parker Jr., tap-dancer Savion Glover, Pharrell Williams, and newcomers Glenn Lumanta and Jade Novah. And while the extravaganza ran late, for a total of four hours and fifteen minutes, not finishing until a quarter after midnight, it was a tremendous revue of musicality that was satisfyingly exhausting for having touched on a myriad of worthwhile emotions.
The atmosphere was merry and convivial as a great many of the roughly 15,000 attendees donated unwrapped toys to Wonder’s nonprofit organization, the We Are You Foundation, benefiting disadvantaged children, those who suffer from disabilities, and struggling families. Moreover, representatives of 102.3 KJLH FM, including the KJLH choir and especially DJ Mal-Ski, contributed to the fellowship of the occasion. The latter led a Michael Jackson vs. Prince song-and-dance battle during the 11 p.m. intermission, and was very successful in encouraging and maintaining the crowd’s festive exuberance, who were willing to stay as late as Stevie Wonder was.
Wonder was impressively indefatigable throughout the event, acting as host, storyteller, and, of course, performer. Though he expressed wariness of the international political turmoil, Wonder’s disposition was symbolic of an honorable grit and optimism, fortified by the togetherness of the holidays, in the face of adversity. “We’re here to celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah as a truly united people of the world,” echoed Wonder, who later eloquently elaborated with: “You cannot let the Internet be your weapon for expressing your anger and hate. Stand up for what you feel, but if it’s not for unity and oneness, you got a problem.”
The first special guest Wonder introduced was the living legend, Tony Bennett, who, at 91 years of age, has a voice that is ever-abundant with a textured richness that bellows meaningfully. With Wonder providing the accompaniment on his harmonica, Bennett’s performance of both “For Once in My Life” (which Wonder also covered in 1967) and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” were outstanding in how they culminated spectacularly and left the audience wanting more.
Subsequently, newcomer Glenn Lumanta of Australia performed a flawlessly jazzy rendition of “Silent Night” on the piano with resounding vocals. He was followed by another relative new singer on the scene, Jade Novah, who performed a sweetly soulful and resonant version of Adolphe Adams’ “O Holy Night,” as her husband and young son watched adoringly from the audience. Both Lumanta and Novah earned the crowd’s and Wonder’s respect, who excitedly and justifiably responded by booming “incredible!” into the microphone.
Seasoned saxophonist Mike Phillips then performed one of his own songs, “We Are One” (an apropos choice), as he moved the audience into a fervor by determinedly alternating between notes, and exhibiting an impeccable control and astonishing lung capacity (at one point, he sustained a note for over a minute). Similarly, Savion Glover, a tap-dancing extraordinaire, conveyed a mastery over his craft by shuffling his feet at a frenzied, but, more importantly, ordered pace, as he spun and side-stepped to the tune of the band.
Singer Andra Day, who is notable for her spirited vocals and bluesy timbre, in tandem with hip-hop star Common, beautifully performed “Stand Up for Something,” which was released earlier this year as part of the soundtrack for the film, “Marshall.” The two did an admirable job of evoking a poignant tenacity with the piece, intermixing singing with poetry. Day later performed with Wonder for a stellar interpretation of “All in Love is Fair,” and Common seamlessly collaborated with the Motown icon on “Visions.”
The last two of Stevie’s on-stage friends were, with the exception of Wonder himself, the biggest stars of the night – Dave Matthews and Pharrell Williams. Matthews, who was as energetic as ever, sang a stouthearted and robust rendition of “Crush,” before later teaming up with Wonder to rousingly duet on “Superstition,” which appropriately earned a raucous applause.
Williams, of course, sang one of the biggest smashes of the last few years — “Happy” — as Wonder, a fan of the song, took over a few times as Williams watched in appreciation. The two followed with an encore of “Happy” that invited the participation of the audience, and was just as electrifying, if not more so, than the first go-around. Williams later returned for “Golden Lady,” and won over Wonder’s approval so much so that the Best Original Song nominee was asked to stay a few more rounds on stage despite the show running overtime. Nonetheless, Williams was a great sport about it, and even joked with the vivacious veteran about joining him in the studio the next day, to which Wonder, an underrated comedian, responded by improvisationally crooning the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”
Prior to beginning his highly anticipated main-event set comprised of the 19 combined songs from Talking Book and Innervisions (in order of the LP track lists), Wonder took a moment to reflect on his works from more than thirty-five years ago. “I still listen to these songs to see if I feel that joy in my heart,” Wonder stated pensively. As the audience would soon discover, the rapturous fire within Wonder is inextinguishable.
The inimitable Ray Parker Jr., whose writing (he composed the timeless Ghostbusters theme song) and guitar prowess are unmatched, accompanied Wonder for a series of the classic hits from Talking Book. Among these were “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (with original singers Lani Groves and Jim Gilstrap), “You and I” (which saw a couple in the front row get engaged), “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” “Big Brother” (wherein Wonder played a small keyboard-esque instrument with a string-sounding quality called the harpejji), “Blame It On the Sun” (which elicited a bygone memory of Wonder’s, who had tears streaming down as he performed it), and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever).” Suffice it to say, during his Talking Book section of songs, it became quickly apparent that the 25-time Grammy Award Winner and craftsman of music for nearly 60 years was in a class of his own. As he effortlessly shifted from one keyboard to another, Wonder, whose glorious smile cannot be denied, continues to command a resplendent tenor quality by reaching for the stars and the universe at large with pitch-perfect passion.
After the intermission, Wonder dove right into Innervisions, commencing with “Too High,” which underscored Wonder’s expert familiarity with the harmonica. The bass-accented “Living for the City” was an enthralling experience for the crowd members, who sang the outro in unison, as Wonder conducted them. Thereafter, “Higher Ground” exemplified Wonder’s increasing momentum, verve, and vocal stamina, as well as his ability to persist in wondrous and machine-like fashion, with nary a misstep. The last song of the night was “He’s Misstra Know-It-All,” as the Rock & Roll Hall-of-Famer, in all his musical splendor, seemed to be just getting warmed up as the concert had technically trickled into the following day.
Overall, the “House Full of Toys” benefit concert was tantamount to a spiritually communal experience – and a reminder to be good to one another, especially in times of uncertainty. Wonder, who is a well-rounded entertainer, and still possesses an unbelievably youthful and full-bodied voice, has been commendably immune to the insidiousness of cynicism. Instead, he has become even more appreciative of life, his fans, and the opportunity to regale them for a great cause. Flanked by a talented team of like-minded singers and musicians at the 21st annual show, Wonder demonstrated an infectious genuineness and how his heart very much continues to be in the right place. “I sing for all of you; I feel your pain when you’re pained, and I celebrate and feel joyful for all of you when there’s joy,” said Wonder.
For more information about Stevie Wonder, including future concert dates, please visit steviewonder.net