It's easy to think of an album such as Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" as iconic, admiring the 1976 classic in a somewhat distant, academic way. But then the singer/composer performs it live and brings it all back to blood, sweat and tears.
Thursday night at the Palace of Auburn Hills, when Wonder sang "I Wish," that exuberant, brassy look back on his scrappy Detroit childhood, despite the joyful tone of the song, at one point his voice thickened with emotion and he stopped singing.
"I miss you mama" he said. Later on, during "Joy Inside My Tears," Wonder's tears flowed again.
Every note played, every word sung is from the heart, felt deeply even now, 38 years later.
The belt of snow that pummeled northern Oakland Country delayed "Songs in the Key of Life Performance" concert for just over an hour, but Wonder, dressed in a glittery gray jacket and matching gray glasses, warmed things up quickly when he emerged at about 9:15.
Before starting off with "Love's in Need of Love Today," he asked to have a word with the audience.
"They say people don't appreciate you in your hometown, but that hasn't been true for me," he said. "I have truly been given love from you all my life."
Then he introduced several of the Detroiters in his band, including music director/keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, and bassist Nathan Watts (both men played on the original 1976 album, as well).
That wasn't the end of the Detroit shout-outs. At the end of "Knocks Me Off My Feet," the song evolved into a vocal duel between Wonder and his only male backup singer, Keith John, who matched the boss note for note, upping the ante each time.
"His father was Little Willie John, what do you expect?" said Wonder, with a grin. "From Detroit!"
Some 37 musicians and singers were onstage, counting the core band, horn section, singers and string section, all in service of some very deep grooves.
Not everybody played or sang at once, although when they did, such as on "Sir Duke," the effect was stunning, like a 1940s big band in full roar. There is great power, but everyone is singing or playing their part with wonderful precision.
Wonder's voice is still a joy to hear, his supple tenor can reach all the notes to his youthful songs, although three-plus hours of singing rendered him somewhat hoarse later on when he was talking to the audience.
He gets a slight break when singer John steps forward to sing much of the beautiful "Summer Soft," with Wonder chiming in on harmony vocals toward the end.
India.Arie, garbed in an array of gorgeous turnouts, brought a vivid, feminine beauty to the proceedings, harmonizing with Wonder on "Saturn" and "Ngiculelea — Es Una Historia — I Am Singing." Wonder accompanied himself deftly on an unusual instrument — a harpejji — a fretted, flat electric stringed instrument that sounds like a cross between a piano and a guitar.
It was a warm moment when Wonder brought his daughter — and backup singer — Aisha Morris forward, introducing her as the baby heard crying in the song "Isn't She Lovely." He revealed that he'd written the song before she was born, so sure was he that the baby was going to be a girl.
"Fellas don't look too hard," he warned, as some whistled.
He took time to emphasize several of his favorite messages throughout the evening, making an anti-gun appeal at one point, citing the Sandy Hook tragedy ("And if you don't agree with me, I still love you').
The talk would always come back to his favorite theme, love.
"If you want to Tweet something that's true, not something that's gossip, how about this," he said. "We need to love, truly love. If your heart is big enough to love one person, why not love everybody?"
The "Songs" cycle ended with the number "Another Star," and Wonder had some fun adopting a "DJ Chick Chick Boom" persona, playing bits of some of his greatest hits ("Uptight," "For Once In My Life," etc.) before abruptly bailing on it and moving on to the next one.
Before playing "Superstition," Wonder said the "Songs" tour was going to end Dec. 20, with one more performance at his annual concert to benefit the Los Angeles children's charity Houseful of Toys.
Then he made an offer: "If somebody here will help sponsor it, we'll come back and do 'Songs in the Key of Life' in Detroit again — this time to raise money for children.
"Could we fill the Palace again? 'Cause I'm seeing a lot of people out there," Wonder teased.
He probably could. But it's somewhat melancholy to realize that "Songs in the Key of Life Performance" is a reminder of a time when people still took time to listen to a long piece of pop music at a leisurely pace, a time when attention spans weren't yet fractured by electronic distractions.
Love's in Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God
Village Ghetto Land
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Isn't She Lovely
Joy Inside My Tears
All Day Sucker
Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)
Ngiculela — Es Una Historia — I Am Singing
If It's Magic
"DJ Chick Chick Boom" medley: Uptight/Higher Ground/My Cherie Amour/For Once in My Life/Do I Do/Master Blaster/