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Wonder brings message of love, peace, healing to the faithful

There are very few artists capable of turning a hockey arena into a spiritual sanctuary. Stevie Wonder is one of them.

On Thursday, a full First Niagara Center received Wonder rapturously, welcoming the man’s first Buffalo appearance in decades, and giving every indication of embracing the man’s message of love, empathy and compassion during a time when only the hardest of hearts would deny that message’s significance.

Wonder has been touring his “Songs in the Key of Life” album for more than a year, and Thursday’s show was one of the last scheduled to take place on U.S. soil. That meant that the man and his massive ensemble had by this time become a well-oiled machine, capable of navigating the multi-idiomatic nuances of the “Key of Life” material, a collection of songs that handily marries such supposedly disparate genres as funk, pop, soul, classical, jazz fusion, rock, and gospel with sublime mastery.

It also meant that Wonder was able to place this miraculous music firmly in the here and now, and he did so, from the very beginning. Wonder prefaced opening song “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” with a riff decrying the general air of violence and racial unrest prevalent in this country over recent months and years.

This was what we needed Wonder for back in 1976, when “Songs” was first released, and it’s what we needed him for on Thursday at FNC – to frame our own experience and offer words and sounds of love, compassion and healing. He did not disappoint. It would be only a slight exaggeration to suggest that, halfway through the elegiac gospel-tinged prayer that is “Love’s In need of Love Today,” there weren’t many dry eyes in the house.

A gentle, soulful form of spiritual healing would be the evening’s theme, as evidenced by the first set’s sensuous takes on ballads like “Have A Talk With God,” “Summer Soft,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and “Ordinary Pain.” But “Songs” is also an album that also deals with disillusionment, righteous anger and harsh observations of reality, so “Village Ghetto Land”and “Pastime Paradise”offered balance to the first set, and made it clear that Wonder’s idealism and belief in the transformative powers of love are hard-won.

It was possible during this first set to simply marvel at the high level of musicianship in evidence, too, or to free your body and get your groove on to ebullient refrain of the Duke Ellington tribute “Sir Duke” – “You can feel it all over!” Wonder sang, and we did – or take a heaping ladleful of the funky gumbo that was “I Wish.”

Wonder surrounded himself with a massive ensemble in order to capture the grandeur of the original album. Under the guidance of musical director and longtime bassist Nate Watts – who played on much of the original “Songs” album – the band featured six backing vocalists, a full brass section, several percussionists, two keyboardists, two guitarists, a choir, and a full string section. Wonder himself played keys, harmonica, and a new stringed instrument called an harpejji, a guitar-harp-piano hybrid.

After a 20-minute intermission, Wonder returned with an incredibly on point version of “Isn’t She Lovely,” replete with a lengthy harmonica solo, during which Wonder married Toots Thielmans to deep blues. Incredible, but nothing compared to the full band, 20-piece string section (including members of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra) and backing vocalist-adorned version of “Joy Inside My Tears”. This was grandiose, a wall of gorgeous emotive sound.

The second set was looser and Wonder more playful, as he adopted a persona he called “DJ Tick Tick Boom,” curated his own incredible back catalog, offered the spotlight to each of his virtuosic backing vocalist, and gave his horn and rhythm sections ample time to strut their stuff. Wonder offered an affecting “Star Spangled Banner” on solo harmonica, and sparred with his fellow soloists on his Harpejji.

The combined effect of all of this was breathtaking.

“Black Man” provided another pinnacle, as Wonder and band moved through the veritable history lesson of a tune, celebrating the many immigrant populations who have contributed to whatever successes we’ve had. The people understood.

Wonder is not an overtly political artist. He speaks in broad terms, couches his melodies in lush chord progressions, and knows he can be enjoyed by the casual listener and the deep, close listener alike.

Both surely enjoyed Thursday’s outstanding show. But I think the deep listener might have taken home something that’s going to last a little longer.