The prospect of a veteran pop act playing a career-defining album in its entirety as the focus of repertoire for a concert tour is nothing new. But outside of Roger Waters and his recently completed performance revival of the Pink Floyd epic The Wall, few artists have taken the album concert concept to an arena level.
Enter Stevie Wonder, 64, perhaps the most enduring and progressively minded artist from the golden age of Motown. Friday night, he makes an ultra-rare regional concert return with a KFC Yum Center show built around a full performance of the album that was the zenith of his commercial and creative visibility, 1976's Songs in the Key of Life .
To appreciate the potency of the popularity behind Songs in the Key of Life, you have to consider the stylistic and artistic growth achieved by the four albums that preceded it. Those recordings — Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness' First Finale — were cut and issued in whirlwind fashion between March 1972 and July 1974.
While Music of My Mind was the least commercially prominent of the pack, it redefined Wonder's music with a modernized keyboard vocabulary (he performed nearly every instrument on the record) and compositions that shied away from Motown's cherished pop soul formulas of the '60s in favor of a more contemporary funk and R&B groove. Talking Book and Innervisions quickly weaved a much stronger social urgency into the lyrics, yielding some of the most commanding hits of Wonder's career (Superstition, Higher Ground and especially Living for the City). Fulfillingness' First Finale was, by comparison, a cool, sophisticated exhale of a record.
Innervisions and Fulfillingness' First Finale won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year in 1974 and 1975. Songs in the Key of Life was given the same honor in 1977 after spending nearly three months atop the Billboard all-genre album chart and scoring four hits (including the chart toppers I Wish and Sir Duke).
Songs in the Key of Life had it all. Released as a double album with a bonus five-song EP, it contained some of Wonder's brightest pop (typified by the uber-popular radio smash Isn't She Lovely, which, amazingly, was never released as an official single) as well some of his keenest social observations (as shown by the way-underrated Black Man, which was equal parts global anthem, history lesson and funk manifesto).
Tonight, it all comes to life for the first time on a Kentucky stage. Forget the fact that this music is nearly four decades old. Songs in the Key of Life will forever be in tune and of the times.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band
There is perhaps no currently conjured sound more readily reflective of — or more endearing to — the jazz traditions of New Orleans than the music of the mighty Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
There is not a hint of pop- or fusion-propelled filler in the songs these guys summon, nor in the sounds created by any of the band's previous lineups dating back to 1963. What you hear is sweet, understated musicianship rooted in the rag, swing and blues traditions of the Crescent City.
As steadfast as that sound has remained over the last five-plus decades, Preservation Hall has discovered ways of incorporating a stylistically broad hit parade of guests on recent recordings that include Tom Waits, Andrew Bird and Louisvillian Jim James (for 2010's Preservation) as well as the bluegrass champions of The Del McCoury Band (for 2011's fully collaborative American Legacies). The PHJB's newest record, 2013's That's It!, forgoes the guests for the band's first-ever album of all-original songs.
The PHJB is heading back to Kentucky for two performances. On Sunday, it headlines a Midnite Ramble performance at the Kentucky Center for the Arts' ultra-intimate Bomhard Theatre in Louisville (despite the program title, it's a 7 p.m. show). Then, on Monday, the band returns to the Lyric Theatre, where it performed a show full of swing, blues and bop last May. This time, though, the PHJB will be the featured guest for the weekly recording of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.