Stevie Wonder – Free Montreal Show, June 30 2009
When Montreal celebrates, we do it in style. Our team wins the Stanley Cup? We hold a parade (and yes, a riot) that no city can match. Host the Olympics? We build a monstrosity of a stadium with a price tag of over a billion dollars. Have the 30th edition of our International Jazz Festival? Well, we decide, rain or shine, to throw a party for half a million people, with the legendary Stevie Wonder providing the entertainment.
As you can see in the youtube clip, Stevie, wearing all black, dedicated his show to the recently departed Michael Jackson. Although I did comment on the whole MJ/Farrah Fawcett hooplah recently, Stevie was clearly speaking from the heart. MJ wasn’t an abstraction to Stevie; he was a close friend. Despite Stevie’s numerous encouragements throughout the show that the crowd should be celebrating and having a great time, there was an undercurrent of somberness throughout, most notably early on during a rendition of “I Can’t Help It,” a song he had written for Quincy Jones, who recorded it for MJ’s ‘Off the Wall’ album. Later, a mournful version of the Beatle’s ‘Michelle,’ had a sizable portion of the audience moved to tears. The choice of that song was prescient: it paid tribute to both Michael and the bilingualism of Montreal. The upbeat feel was replaced by a slow, melancholy tone, and the visibly emotional Wonder sang with an intensity that affected even those at the back of the massive crowd. There were other references to the departed pop star; twice, Wonder stopped playing and merely sat at his piano, content to just listen as different Michael Jackson songs played out over the PA system. He mouthed the words, not daring to interrupt or draw the attention to himself, until the last chorus ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, when overcome with emotion, he began a duet with the recording, ad libbing lyrics overtop. There were plenty of hits, which was perfect for a casual fan like myself: ‘Higher Ground,’ ‘Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours,’ ‘Uptight (Everything is Alright),’ an extended version of ‘Superstition’ with each band member being introduced. The streets were filled with dancing people of all ages, as us Montrealers celebrated the arrival (finally!) of warm weather, despite the rain that had started earlier in the day. Speaking of which, the rain did clear up 5 minutes before Stevie went on (20 minutes late, it should be noted, due to an unspecified ‘technical issue’). If I were superstitious, I would read into the fact that the rain only began again at the end of the show, as Stevie and his band (including his daughter, who was a back-up singer) stood on stage, dancing, as a medley of Jackson hits played to a crowd that refused to leave. Throughout the night, Wonder cracked jokes, laughing at his own inability to speak French, cried to himself during the interludes as he listened to his friend’s legendary voice, smiled joyfully as his band members took their turns doing spotlight solos. The show was not jut a celebration of Michael Jackson, nor a celebration of our wonderful city in all it’s summertime glory. It was a celebration of life itself, of the joy and sorrow that combine to make existence as rich as it is.
So that’s it, the kick-off to the 30th Montreal International Jazz Festival. More updates to come, as I’ll be checking out the numerous (over 400!) free shows that will be going on over the next 2 weeks or so.