I am sweetly hungover this morning from living a lifelong dream last night. And believe it or not there was not a drop of alcohol involved. You know how when you finally get to experience something you’ve been dreaming of forever, it rarely lives up to your overblown expectations? Well this went so far beyond anything I ever could’ve imagined! And it never would’ve happened had I not moved so close to New York.
Call me superstitious if you like. Say that I’m livin’ for the city. But for once in my life the stars were completely aligned and I was absolutely overjoyed. If you haven’t guessed by now, I spent last evening being mesmerized by Stevie Wonder. And then some…
Since I was a little girl listening to AM radio, I have loved this man’s music, and seeing him live was one of those things I have had on my bucket list. About a month ago, I found out he was playing a one night show at Madison Square Garden, and when I looked at my calendar I discovered that we were free – except for the obligation of driving Ben out to Syosset, Long Island to the Havdalah (Saturday evening end of Shabbat) bat mitzvah of a camp friend and picking him up when it was over. The timing of the 8:00 show wedged perfectly between drop-off and pickup.
The show instantly sold out (I tried getting tickets less than two hours after they went on sale), but I deemed the event worthy of paying ticket broker prices, and picked decent seats in the 2nd tier, stage-left. When we arrived at the Garden (after our trek to Long Island and then through the Midtown Tunnel), we could see that the crowd was unsurprisingly mostly folks in their 40s and 50s, but also in our section was an elderly grandmother type, who came straight from Central Casting. The tiny lady had to be 80 if she was a day, and with her white hair and the quintessential white cabled cardigan draped around her shoulders and buttoned at the neck, she was the sweet old neighbor in every movie or TV show ever made. Except she was really a rockin’ granny! She cracked us up, groovin’ to the canned dance music piped in before the show, (although she was clapping on the upbeat rather than the downbeat) and she barely sat down once the show was in full swing either.
I’m used to Barry Manilow’s increasingly shorter (75-80 minutes), highly produced shows, with glitzy sets and costumes and scripted schtick. For years, Manilow’s shows have started with the band’s music growing to a crescendo, and Barry emerging from a cloud of smoke. Well this couldnt’ve have been any more opposite. At precisely 8:30 pm, Stevie just walked slowly up stage-left, arm-in-arm with his daughter, Aisha, who was one of her father’s three backup singers. No musicians on stage, just Stevie and his daughter, and he welcomed us by saying , “Madison Square Garden looks just like I pictured!” Hee! He spent a few minutes telling us how the death of his mother – the light of his life – first caused him to stop performing and then inspired him to put together these precious few evenings he’s been playing around the country.
Stevie then treated us to 2-1/2 incredible hours of nonstop music. Throughout he talked to us playfully, telling stories of song inspirations, coaching us to sing along, and he even got a sexy little round going between the ladies and the gentleman during “Ribbon in the Sky.” He played the piano, the harmonica, and at one point he sang with some bizarre pipe in his mouth that distorted his voice to sound like a bass (a la Peter Frampton live) and he’d sing the first line of an old classic disco hit and we’d then join in. It was great fun, and I was blown away that the hulking stranger on my right knew every word to dance hits like “We Are Family.”
Mid-way through or so, the musicians took a break while Stevie played a gorgeous trio of (to the best of my memory) “All Is Fair in Love,” “Visions,” and “Lately.” It was extraordinarily touching, and I was a blubbering mess. When the musicians came back, they went up-tempo again with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” and Stevie finally got my stodgy old boyfriend on his feet, dancing and singing. Then he had us all sing along as he replayed the song in a horrendous country style, telling us to twang, “Here I a-a-am baaa-behhh…”
He blew through loads of hits (in their entirety – not the truncated medley versions like Manilow does with his own hits), including “Sir Duke, “My Cherie Amour,” “You Are the Sunshine,” “I Wish,” “Living for the City,” “Higher Ground,” “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” “Overjoyed,” “Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing,” “As,” “Too High,” and “Master Blaster Jammin.’”
“Well that’s nice, dear,” you say. “So you got to hear a great artist sing his hits and it was fun. It’s very quaint that your expectations are so small that that blew you away. And by the way, why did it matter that you saw him in New York, as opposed to the Providence Civic Center?” (oops, I mean The Dunk!) Well stay with me, my friends, here’s where it started to boil over…
Stevie had just finished singing one of my favorites, “For Once in My Life,” when he spoke again of his beloved mother, explaining that she had been the one to turn him on to two of his favorite musicians ever. The first was the legendary Miss Ella Fitzgerald, and the mere mention of her name induced polite, appreciative applause. “And the second,” he continued, “was Mr. Tony Bennett. MR. TONY BENNETT!” And with that, Mr. Tony Bennett himself sauntered onto the stage! What a great surprise! Stevie and Tony sang “For Once in My Life” again, this time the romantic slow-tempo version. It had been David’s lifelong dream to see Tony Bennett live, so this was exciting.
“Wow, that’s pretty cool,” you’re thinking. And yes, it was. People like Tony Bennett don’t just happen by the stage in Providence, RI. So while the acoustics of playing music in a massive basketball arena like Madison Square Garden admittedly aren’t the best, you do get the benefit of being in NYC, with the possibility of occasional surprise appearances by superstars.
Wait. Superstars…plural? Oh, yes, did I mention that there was another surprise guest near the end of the show? Okay, not a surprise…a shock is more like it! The band started playing the guitar and bass lines for “Superstition,” and Stevie joined in on vocals for a while. And then all of a sudden – out of nowhere – Stevie says, “Ladies and gentlemen… PRINCE!” And onto the stage comes this tiny, magnificent man with a guitar, who jammed with the band for the rest of the song. I was having palpitations and hot flashes and hyperventilating and shaking and crying and I couldn’t catch my breath! I held my hands on my cheeks, like those young girls who saw the Beatles back in the 60s. It was a completely visceral response. I’ve never seen anyone move like the Purple One did, and there’s nothing I can humanly think of that would’ve made the show any more climactic for me. (The only thing that could’ve made it better for David was delivery of the city’s best Chinese food right to his seat.) And then in a flash Prince high-fived Stevie’s guitarist, waved, and left the stage. Never sang a syllable. It was like a magical musical fantasy!
There’s simply nothing else I can possibly say to convey the thrill of the evening, so I will leave it there. It was all about the music, which is what I had come for in the first place. Whatever I paid for those tickets was worth every cent. At the end, Stevie linked arms with his daughter and the other two backup singers and they did a group bow on either side of the stage, and then together they all walked off stage-left, leaving an arena-full of delirious fans. It was an experience way beyond my wildest dreams…it was truly an evening of Wonder!