Living Just Enough For The Music
For the past week two durable R&B icons have been chasing each other around the arenas of the Northeast. Tonight Stevie Wonder plays Chicago; Usher will take the same stage there on Monday. This quirk of routing allowed me to catch them on consecutive nights in New York City: Last Thursday, Stevie Wonder kicked off his eleven-city Songs in the Key of Life arena tour at the cavernous Madison Square Garden. And on Friday, pop-soul showman Usher made a pitstop there while burning through his 27-city UR Experience tour. For me, as an R&B fan, the coincidence was a reason to rejoice. It also was a chance to reflect on the ways the musicians' songs have been shaped by their careers. Because, to riff on a Stevie Wonder song, it isn't always magic.
In their respective ways, Stevie and Usher were both hawking nostalgia. Wonder, now 64, performed his 1976 Grammy-winning Album of the Year Songs in the Key of Life live to an arena of enraptured fans. And 36-year-old Usher, celebrating 20 years since his self-titled debut, headlined his first tour in three years, performing two decades of hits.
Even by today's standards, Songs in the Key of Life is an ambitious double album set: it's sonically eccentric and fuses a wide variety of styles: soul, funk, pop, jazz, country and samba. Hearing those 20 songs that I've listened to so many times performed live and mostly in sequence — including try to keep a smile off your face classics like "Knocks Me Off My Feet," "I Wish," "Sir Duke" and "As" — was a trip. Looking back, it's clear that Songs in the Key of Life was the culmination of eclectic '70s FM radio, created in the aftermath of the Beatles' late '60s studio wizardry and forged in the socially-minded spirit of Marvin Gaye's 1971 What's Goin' On. It's not an easy album to perform live. So Wonder armed himself with a phalanx: musical director and keyboardist Greg Philiinganes, bassist Nathan Watts and drummer Raymond Pounds — all of whom played on the album — were flanked by two additional keyboardists, two guitarists, two drummers, two percussionists, six horn players and six back up singers (including his daughter Aisha), plus a ten-piece string section and special guest India Arie, who made the most of her four costume changes, including a billowing yellow princess dress.
You could hardly call the evening seamless: microphones went in and out, the arena's live sound treatment was sometimes booming and other times shrill (at least from where I was sitting). Wonder, for his part, tended to treat the whole affair too casually: he walked on stage at the top of the show without fanfare or a proper introduction and he didn't offer any VH-1 Storytellers style banter/insight to help contextualize the tunes or give us a sense of how he felt performing them 38 years later. (And whose idea was it to play a Bruno Mars track over the loud speakers during intermission?) Nobody will ever dispute that Wonder is a prodigious musical talent with a staggering resume of profound artistic achievements, but he has a long history of humbly underplaying his own iconicity: you get the feeling that he sometimes needs a hype man at his side to pop his collar a bit more. At the show I saw, Nathan Watts gave it a go, but the Garden could have been led far higher — the people had come to pay tribute.
The palpable surplus in the arena all night long was the overflowing love – from Wonder, from his band, from the audience — swirling around the Garden. (It came to a head when Aisha, for whom he originally wrote the Songs classic "Isn't She Lovely" brought his youngest daughter, a precociously cute toddler, on stage. Wonder took the opportunity then to refute reports his newest girlfriend is pregnant with triplets — "It's just one baby," he said.) Beyond regular, warm feelings love, there was plenty tough love to go around: during his melancholic rendition of "Joy Inside my Tears," Wonder banged his fist on the piano; afterwards he announced that the family of a Sandy Hook massacre victim was in attendance, and he delivered a timely message about the need for gun control. He also visibly cried at least twice during the concert. I did, too, for the record.
In 1976 Songs in the Key of Life may have been Wonder's unrequited love letter to America. In 2014, as protests in Ferguson rage on, the double album's messianic prescription of communal healing still feels relevant; its prophecies have yet to be fulfilled. These days, pop stars seem more disposable than ever, so "message" tracks like "Black Man," "Saturn" and "Love's In Need of Love Today" help remind us of the enduring role that musicians can play in times of global war and conflict. It was thrilling to watch Stevie Wonder, who has always deployed his blindness to embody the cultural role of seer, revisiting those almost 40-year-old innervisions.
While Wonder has not released a new studio album since 2005, Usher has, for his part, been releasing music on the regular. Despite two new singles, kinetic "She Came to Give It to You" and dancehall-ish "Good Kisser" (and he also appears with Rick Ross on Chris Brown's fall single "New Flame"), Usher's forthcoming eighth full-length has been delayed. In the absence of a new album to promote, the UR Experience tour falls in line with 21st-century music business priorities, where recordings don't sell much but "heritage" artists with robust back catalogs can still sell out arenas and get paid. (Having trouble classifying Usher as a veteran artist? You might not be as young as you think you are.)
At Madison Square Garden last Friday, Usher spent two hours blazing through hits like "You Remind Me," "You Don't Have to Call" and "My Boo" to a decidedly dapper twenty- and thirty-something audience mouthing every word. (Wonder's audience was, expectedly, a bit older.) Stylistic flashes of showmen like James Brown, Jackie Wilson and (pre-reality TV) Bobby Brown surfaced as Usher popped and gyrated about, occasionally lifting his shirt to flash those trademark washboard abs. Usher may not be anywhere in Michael Jackson's orbit, but no male pop star has repped Jackson's triple threat persona more convincingly over the years, despite throngs of aspirants-to-the-throne over the years.
The UR Experience had a lot going on. Buoyant live horn section. Bursts of fire shooting from the stage floor. Constantly shifting geometric platforms. Electrifying dancers dressed as if they'd just come from the set of the Matrix films. Usher sporting a wintery Daniel Boone cap halfway into the show (yep, that looked weird since he was also wearing a summery tank top.) If the Stevie Wonder concert could have sometimes used a bit more pomp and circumstance, Usher's concert was all pomp. Wonder, however, has the upper hand on circumstance.
Given his history of multi-platinum success, Usher seems to have gone on tour this year mostly to earn cash and remind fans of his longevity; in that sense, it was largely a self-aggrandizing affair. As an R&B artist, Usher is certainly a more appealing and genuinely charming persona than, say, Chris Brown or Trey Songz. But 20 years in, he hasn't cultivated anywhere near the gravitas of the R&B artists who came before him, like Prince — or Stevie Wonder, for that matter. There are many reasons for that, and here's one: there's nothing stylistically cohesive about his song catalog. At MSG, I watched Usher barrel through the late '90s pop soul of "Nice and Slow" and "My Way" before shifting to the Southern crunk of 2004's "Yeah" and 2008 synth-raver "Love in This Club" and the robotic-electro 2010 "OMG." By the time Usher got to his more recent Europop-influenced material like "DJ Got Us Fallin' In Love" and the David Guetta anthem "Without You," it felt like we'd been listening to an iPod on shuffle rather than the coherent work of a single artist. At the end of the night, the UR Experience concert was thrilling, too, but thrilling in the way you feel after intense aerobic exercise rather than thrilling in the way you feel after having witnessed a transcendent work of art. The crowd started rushing en masse out of the arena as the Guetta song played; there was no reason to stick around to see how it all ended.
Whitney Houston's self-titled 1985 debut may have been one of the first modern albums to employ multiple producers in the strategic effort to generate cross-demographic hits. Usher's musical output has always followed suit: he's a producer-driven artist rather than a self-contained auteur, and he's wisely surrounded himself with a laundry list of fantastic craftsmen, including Bad Boy Records' hitmakers, Jermaine Dupri, The Neptunes, Mike City and, more recently, Diplo. Like many of today's pop stars lacking a truly identifiable or indispensable catalog, Usher's appeal has as much or more to do with branding. Why just make music if you can star in movies like Light It Up, if you can mentor Justin Bieber, if you can sell a perfume line (product copy notes that "UR by Usher" is a combination of "sea water, fruity notes, nutmeg, bay leaf, basil, artemisia, guaiac wood, cashmere wood and sandalwood"), and if you can package your new song in a box of Honey Nut Cheerios sold at Walmart?
Usher has never released an album that could stand alone the way that Songs in the Key of Life can (2004's Confessions is probably the closest he's come to a concept album). In fact, it's hard to imagine any of Usher's albums having a similar weight or importance in 10 or 15 years — though he does have hits for days. That's not exclusively Usher's fault: Wonder came of age at a wildly different time when albums and record labels mattered far more than they do now.
At least since the early '70s, Wonder — whose artistry was informed by the church and tried in the fire of the classic Motown star system — has deployed his music not only to entertain audiences but to promote his longstanding vision of communion. Though he doesn't have a perfume line, Stevie is a brand in the technical sense that he has a consistent image and reputation (there's a reason Eddie Murphy was so good at imitating him over the years; and, given the number of blind jokes Stevie himself told at the Songs concert, he seems to be very cognizant of the ways his fans perceive him). But Wonder's longstanding commitment to social justice flows through his music and also exceeds it; we're never less than aware that the music he makes is more than just commerce for commerce's sake.
Both the Songs in the Key of Life tour and UR Experience tours succeeded creatively for their respective audiences and delivered the nostalgia they'd promised. I had a great time at both. But I couldn't forget that I was a part of two audiences that had wildly different expectations for musicians of totally different generations. One audience came together last Thursday night to celebrate a classic artist performing a singular and historic recording that has stood the test of time, and the other came together on Friday to celebrate an artist-as-brand, regardless of whether he had a new album to sell, and regardless of whether he'd ever released a classic album or whether he ever would. 'Nuff said.
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