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Wonderful return for Stevie fans

9 September 08 08:04 GMT
By Ian Youngs
Music reporter, BBC News, Birmingham

With a canon of classic songs, unbowed enthusiasm and his musical faculties still sharp, Stevie Wonder has opened his first European tour for a decade.

The US star took fans at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena on a two-hour journey through almost 50 years of songs that helped shape soul and pop.

A sold out crowd of 13,500 saw him play with a 10-strong band and four backing singers, including his daughter Aisha.

Wonder, 58, now visits Manchester and London before other European cities.

With a musical catalogue that few can match, Wonder took a couple of detours but made sure his biggest hits were in the bag.

Breathless medley

They ranged from 1960s Motown standards like Uptight through the groundbreaking 1970s funk of Superstition to his 1980s pop smash I Just Called To Say I Love You.

Wonder's mid-'70s albums will go down as his masterpieces, and he saved their highlights until last.

Superstition merged into Sir Duke, which segued into I Wish before the finale of As - a breathless medley that left the crowd on a high.

But with time running out, the most anticipated songs were also the most rushed.

Dressed all in black, with a growing girth and receding hair, it is now 45 years since Wonder had his first hit as The 12-Year-Old Genius, and 23 since he last reached the top of the charts.

But the massive cheer that greeted Wonder at the start of the night confirmed his status as one of pop's sacred stars.

For the first tune, he reached for the harmonica, coaxing intricate nuances as easily as if it were a grand piano.

His other instruments - and that includes his voice - were played the same way, with sincere, soulful expression, warm passion and jazzy improvisation.

Bizarre turn

His vocal cords and his fingers are in fine condition, and he is one of the most irrepressibly enthusiastic men in pop, brimming with infectious energy.

That was summed up as he sat at his keyboard, with his head up, body swaying and mouth in a wide open grin.

He led lots of audience participation, getting the crowd to chant or sing lines, and told us how much he loved us several times, thanking us for everything we had done for him.

He also revealed how the death of lost his mother in 2006 inspired him to go back on the road after so long.

"I want to take all the pain that I feel and celebrate and turn it around," he told us.

"What a blessing I've had in this life to be able to go places I've never imagined, and meet so many wonderful people, people like yourselves."

But his exuberance did get slightly out of hand. The funky interludes and jams dragged and his monologues had a habit of turning into rambles.

At one point, he launched into a speech about the people who have had visions to bring people together "through all the craziness", about "unity and peace and oneness", and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille.

Then things took a turn for the bizarre with an appearance by Hull City footballer George Boateng.

He presented Wonder with a statue of Arthur Wharton, the UK's first black professional footballer, and in return the singer added his voice to the campaign for Wharton to be more widely recognised.

But during the second half of the show, proceedings got back on track and the hits came thick and fast.

Living For the City was followed by Signed, Sealed, Delivered and Uptight, and the 13,500-strong chorus was in fine voice for My Cherie Amour and For Once In My Life.

I Just Called To Say I Love You was a little understated, apologetic even, but nothing was going to stop the crowd singing and swaying along.

They were more reluctant to join his chants of Barack Obama's name, though, as Wonder launched into Superstition and the finale.

Those last songs summed up Wonder's greatest achievements, weaving a vibrant tapestry of melodic adventure, dynamic arrangements, bubbling soul and indefatigable spirit.

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