Live review: Global Soul with Stevie Wonder at the Hollywood Bowl
“What is soul?" Ben E. King asked way back on a 1966 single, but his definition endures: “it ... comes from deep inside ... something that you can’t hide.” Stevie Wonder’s opening remarks at the Global Soul show on Sunday night at the Hollywood Bowl were identical: “Soul is about the feeling in the heart ... at its deepest, most sincerest.” The sentiment’s generosity undoubtedly inspired "The Tonight Show’s" Rickey Minor, who conceived of the evening to highlight different shades of soul from around the world.
The concept, part of KCRW-FM (89.9)'s annual World Music Festival series, was well-intentioned. Though in serving too many ambitions, the show’s opening half felt awkwardly disjointed. For one, all the obviously “global” acts -- including the energetic Nigerian guitarist Bombino and L.A.’s eclectic Latin rocker Ceci Bastida -- were conspicuously sequestered into that first half. Moreover, though Minor’s band backed every act, the different artists’ musical range was so broad -- spanning the Soul Seekers’ gospel gravity to the folk pop of Mia Doi Todd to Rocky Dawuni’s Afrobeat bombast -- it played havoc with the half’s sense of momentum.
For example, Brooklyn’s “Screaming Eagle of Soul,” Charles Bradley, earned the night’s first spontaneous standing ovation through his balladry’s emotive intensity -- not to mention James Brown-inspired stage chops. However, the next artist, Grace Potter of Vermont’s Nocturnals, surrendered some of that goodwill through an oversung/screeched performance, trying to invoke Tina Turner’s ferocity but lacking much of her nuance.
Luckily, the second half made up for whatever unevenness preceded it, beginning with Atlanta’s Janelle Monáe, whose angular frame and snug tuxedo echoed the sharp, tight rhythms of hits such as “Cold War” and “Tightrope.” Though she also riffed masterfully on the stage antics of such '60s masters as Brown and Solomon Burke, the 25-year-old was equally captivating in her moment of stillness, singing a sublime rendition of the Nat King Cole classic “Smile.”
New York’s reigning queen of soul revivalists, Sharon Jones, began the night’s penultimate set by acknowledging Amy Winehouse’s recent passing (both singers shared the same backing band). Jones shook and juked in a shimmering dress with tinsel-like tassels, and her five song set was a marvel of explosive energy and thunderous vocals, culminating in a heartfelt, though rather loyal, cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me.”
Unfortunately, it seemed that the show was running late, cutting short a planned medley in honor of the 40th anniversary of Gaye’s landmark "What’s Going On." Likewise, Wonder’s headlining set ran shorter than many may have wanted, but to his credit, the legend left an affecting impact regardless.
Rather than merely run through his own greatest hits, Wonder unexpectedly walked listeners through a soul audio-biography, recalling childhood memories of listening to R&B pioneers on the radio, then performing covers of such songs as Jesse Belvin’s “Goodnight My Love” and Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.” It was a touching, intimate approach, revealing something of Wonder’s personal relationship with soul rather than fixating on his well-known songwriting/singing catalog.
Wonder eventually performed his own material, charging up the near-capacity crowd with “Superstition” (plus an encore performance of “Higher Ground”), but time constraints seemingly forced the show to quickly shift to bring out the massive YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles). They were joined by all the evening’s performers to close on an ensemble version of Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Though YOLA could barely be heard over the amplified house band, even simply seeing the dozens of young musicians onstage, with Wonder at the helm, was a reassuring sign that as much as soul is steeped in its own, long history, a future generation is readying to take the music into its sixth decade and beyond.
-- Oliver Wang
Top photo: Stevie Wonder performs during the Global Soul concert Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.
Bottom photo: Janelle Monáe at the Global Soul concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.