Stevie Wonder returns to Jazz Fest with message of peace and love

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A skywriter wrote above the Fairgrounds during the closing acts on Jazz Fest final Saturday. - WILL COVIELLO
  • WILL COVIELLO
  • A skywriter wrote above the Fairgrounds during the closing acts on Jazz Fest final Saturday.

A clear blue sky offered a bit of insurance for Stevie Wonder's return to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival after heavy rains canceled his set in 2016. HIs set would have followed the death of Prince, who loomed over festival stages last year like a sheer purple shadow. Wonder paid brief tribute to the artist last year with a rendition of "Purple Rain" at his sound check and with a megaphone to the audience at his would-be headlining set. Before he smiled and joked and played the crowd as if it were an instrument made of a sea of vocals, Wonder — sitting among a dozen musicians joining him onstage — started his 15-song service of gratitude and love with a brief sermon to reflect on 2017's shadow.

"I'm very happy I'm here, I'm very thankful I'm able to come again, and fulfill my promise," said the 66-year-old singer-songwriter, returning to the Acura Stage May 6 . "We have some great musicians, some great singers, some of my family is here — then again all of you are my family, We have a lot to talk about, we have a lot to sing about, we have a lot to pray about. We have a lot to do."

First, he said, he wanted to ask a question: "How many of you in here are about unity? Wait a minute, don't bullshit me."

"A lot has changed since the last time I've seen you," he said. "I just beg of all of you: Don't let the love I've talked to you about be gone by those who would allow a lot of negativity in this nation ... And you can tell him, Mr. No. 45, tell him I said god gave him that position of being what he is for a purpose of uniting people, not dividing them."

And to that certain 45, Wonder urged, don't "be fooled by any energy that makes him think negativity and divisiveness is a solution, because it's not."

"For those of you who disagree with me, I love you," he said, "but — two peas in a bucket."

With that, Wonder hammered into his harpejji, a small electronic unit mimicking percussive clavichord-like sounds, to lead into the big band funk on Hotter Than July opener "Did I Hear You Say You Love Me," followed by the reggae-inspired "Master Blaster."

"The purpose of tonight is to turn this mother out," Wonder said. "This is a celebration of life."

The stage's rough sound mix evened out as Wonder steered the band through Characters' lively "Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down," climaxing with dueling guitar solos before Wonder sat behind the keys to dig into the squiggly rhythms of Innervisions' "Higher Ground" and the playful "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing."

Wonder sat at a grand piano for a jazz standard that moved into "Overjoyed," and he peppered his vocals — still as strong as on record — with pleas for nonviolence and racial harmony. "Whatever color you might be, don't fall for the bullshit," he said.

He stopped mid-song, ending his frequent bursts of affection and concern, reading the vibe of the band and crowd eager for his energy to bolster his immense catalog of hits. "It's getting too deep," he said.

He countered with the slippery funk of "Sir Duke," with his horn section riding along his keyboard riffs, followed by "I Wish" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered."

Wonder invited PJ Morton and Corinne Bailey Rae to the stage to sing verses on his "Living for the City," among several songs Wonder asked for plenty of audience participation. Here, he started a chant of "racism is unacceptable."

Wonder dipped into a trio of goosebumps love songs, beginning with "My Cherie Amour," which he dedicated to Motown producer Sylvia Moy, who died in April, followed by "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and "I Just Called to Say I Love You." The crowd swayed and sang along, singing second-nature verses and choruses to Wonder's timeless songs, to their loved ones or no one in particular. But they seemed to be sending the word back to Wonder himself.

That sweetness onstage and in the crowd appeared to fade as Wonder seemed to have microphone problems and the band waited on his direction. Morton and Bailey Rae remained onstage without a lot to do. Wonder stood at what looked like a beat pad, proclaimed himself DJ Chick Chick Boom and said "I love music."

He pressed play and mixed a medley of songs — Parliament's "Flashlight," Prince's "Kiss," Earth, Wind and Fire's "Shining Star," David Bowie's "Fame," The Eagles' "Hotel Caliornia," and Bruno Mars' "24K Magic" — and invited the crowd to sing along. They had his attention and were hanging on his every move, but it felt like a distraction (though fun and kind of funny) from a set that had reached an emotional, loving climax.

Settled back at the keyboard, he launched into "Superstition" with the band back on board and riding out its riffs. He made his goodbyes and walked offstage as the band played on.

"Please love someone," he said. "I send you love from up above."

The crowd, hoping for an encore, instead got Quint Davis.

"The prophecy is true: Stevie Wonder," he said, "in the sunshine."


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