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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Signed, sealed, delivered

Stevie Wonder shakes off the rust as he hits the road again after a decade-long break.

August 25, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — You can argue that in the galaxy of Motown stars, the two greatest artists -- Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye -- were not its greatest pure entertainers. That distinction probably goes to the razzle-dazzle Temptations and the charismatic Supremes, and later to the Jackson 5.

While those acts left fond memories and some great records, Wonder and the late Gaye went deeper, charting new musical frontiers to express their expanding thematic universe. Although they were no slouches on stage, their significance is not their showmanship but a legacy that still permeates pop music.

That held true Thursday as Wonder, 57, emerged from a long hibernation to launch his first concert tour in more than a decade. His absence has heightened the anticipation for this series of shows, which includes a date at the Greek Theatre on Sept. 5, and he was greeted like a hero when he walked onto the stage at Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay here, escorted by his daughter, Aisha Morris.

He wouldn't sing "Joy Inside the Tears" until late in the set, but the idea of that lyric underpinned his appearance. Before his first song, Wonder explained that he's back on the road because his mother's death last year inspired him to follow her request "to give someone some joy."

Remaining planted behind his grand piano and electric keyboard, Wonder did just that, reanimating one of popular music's most illustrious bodies of work. His Los Angeles fans get to see a small sampler every winter when he plays at his annual "House Full of Toys" charity concert, but to have this much essential music spread out on the table was almost overwhelming.

That canon contains plenty of potential for the sweetly sentimental, but Wonder did a good job of steering the set toward his more substantial stuff -- six of the first 10 songs were from his 1973 masterpiece "Innervisions."

The singer and his 11 musicians, including Morris as one of the three backup singers, quickly found a groove with "Too High" and delivered such up-tempo songs as "Master Blaster (Jammin')," "Higher Ground," "Superstition" and "Sir Duke" with festive force. Things were a little uneven on the ballads, where rough spots and lack of nuance were more exposed. Opening night also had some sonic and visual glitches, including inaudible backup singers and musicians playing their solos without a spotlight.

Considering his rustiness as a performer, Wonder showed a lot of stamina, putting in a solid two hours plus change. His voice, once so supple and sinewy, has taken on a huskiness, but he's still an expressive singer, with one of those instantly identifiable voiceprints.

He isn't a master of pacing, though, and the concert bogged down a couple of times in audience-participation segments. Meant to be lighthearted sing-alongs, they became labored and overlong, occupying time that could have been spent on, say, more of the radiant 1960s hits, the one sector of his music that was underrepresented.

Actually, his latest work, "A Time to Love," got short shrift too, but that's because the 2005 album is irrelevant to his legacy. Neither the performer nor his fans were pretending that anything but his '60s and '70s (and a little '80s) work was important, and this was one of those rare times when the emphasis on vintage work didn't matter a bit.

Shortly after 10 p.m., Wonder told the capacity audience that it was time to quit, because of a curfew and, more important, because he'd been "holding it" for a long time, and really had to go. Now that would have been a perfect time for "Uptight (Everything's Alright)."

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richard.cromelin@latimes.com

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Stevie Wonder

Where: Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles

When: Sept. 5, 8 p.m.

Price: $45 to $125

Contact: (323) 665-5857

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