SPRINGFIELD — Though billed as a grand-opening celebration for the gleaming new MGM Springfield casino, the stakes were not especially high for Stevie Wonder’s special appearance Saturday at the MassMutual Center across the street. The ever-joyful music man has only played a handful of gigs this year and has nothing to promote.
Instead, he threw a “Song Party.” He gave his master of ceremonies, DJ Mal-Ski, a long leash, turning the compact arena into one big karaoke machine by spinning crowd-pleasers ranging from KC and the Sunshine Band to Bruno Mars. He spent indulgent stretches coaching the men and women in the audience to sing countering riffs. His deft band, led by longtime “general” Nathan Watts on bass, took plenty of showcase turns; at one point, they expanded a simple figure from Wonder’s chromatic harmonica into a possible record-setting version of “The Girl From Ipanema.”
But when Stevie Wonder finds his groove, there is no groove more emphatic. None deeper.
It took a while to get there. At 68, Wonder took the stage slowly, led by one of his backup singers. He warmed himself up with a modest song from his catalog, “As If You Read My Mind,” from the 1980 album “Hotter Than July,” which came at the tail end of his phenomenally creative run through the previous decade.
“Y’all with me?” he asked the audience a few songs later, swiveling behind a small fortress of keyboards to noodle with the funky clavinet sound that announces “Higher Ground,” one of those many signature songs of his. (“Superstition” and “I WIsh,” among others, came later.) Yes, Mr. Wonder, we’re with you.
The back-to-back ballads “You and I” and “Ribbon in the Sky” were glorious testaments to the fact that his voice, more than 30 years since his last real hit, remains an eighth wonder of the world. Before he sang “Overjoyed,” he invited a couple of old friends to the stage, the Cecils, who have been married 61 years. Malcolm Cecil engineered several of Wonder’s immaculate early 1970s albums.
The night was surely for lovers. During “My Cherie Amour,” the video screens displayed wedding pictures that audience members had been invited to upload before the show. Introducing his hard-times anthem “Living for the City,” Wonder called for a renewed commitment to “equality and justice for everybody,” and he repeated a pointed mantra he used a few days ago at Aretha Franklin’s funeral: “Let’s make love great again.”
When Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno presented Wonder with a key to the city, the singer beamed. “I got the key to the city!” he nyah-nyah’d, like a kid on the playground with the only lollipop.
Then he whipped back to his default emotion: “But you all got the key to my heart,” he said.
Brushing a custom keypad with his fingertips to create a sound uncannily like a classical guitar, he sang the first verse of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and he followed that with “Imagine.” Then the band led the crowd in an unabashed singalong of “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
No New Year’s Day to celebrate. In fact, it was just another ordinary day in the life of one of the true greats.
At the MassMutual Center, Springfield, SaturdayJames Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.