These days, separating the Royals from anything else going on in Kansas City is a tricky proposition, like trying to separate the omelet from the egg.
And so it was during Stevie Wonder’s momentous concert at Sprint Center on Friday night, where much of the crowd of nearly 12,000 was, in some fashion, tuned in to what was going on over at Kauffman Stadium.
If there was a chase to cut to in this marathon concert, which lasted about 3 1/2 hours, including an intermission, it was somewhere about the three-hour mark, when Kansas City, Kan., native Janelle Monae joined Wonder onstage.
As they were singing “Another Star,” cheers erupted from the sports bar in the arena: The Royals had conquered the Toronto Blue Jays. Wonder would announce, “The Kansas City Royals are going to the World Series,” then lead the arena in a Royals chant.
Wonder turned 65 in May, and he still lives up to his surname. His voice, still sturdy and agile, held up admirably. So did his dry sense of humor and keen wit. He also showed off his virtuosity on several instruments, including the harmonica and a stringed tapping instrument called the harpejji.
Before the music started, he delivered a five-minute monologue that was part homily. He praised God and love, announced the score of the game, wished the Royals well (then admitted he’d said the same thing about the Blue Jays in Toronto two weeks ago) and recalled his previous show in Kansas City in June 2009, the day after Michael Jackson died.
He then led his enormous band, which included horn and string sections and more than a dozen backup singers, in “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” It’s the opening track on “Songs in the Key of Life,” the sprawling double album, released in 1976, that is the focal point of this tour.
“Songs” explores funk, soul, fusion jazz, Latin and rock, and lyrical topics and issues: love, birth, death, racism, poverty and spirituality. Wonder delivered it all with sincerity and aplomb.
There were plenty of highlights. The bright and brassy “Sir Duke” was an early one. So was the rollicking “I Wish,” which featured a funky, rubbery bass line from Nathan Watts, the bassist on “Songs.”
The album and its accompanying EP, “A Something’s Extra,” comprise 21 songs, and this crowd seemed familiar with most of them, even some of the more ambitious numbers like “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and “Ngiculela — Es Una Historia — I Am Singing,” which he mashed up with classics “Tracks of My Tears” and “People Get Ready.”
He engaged the crowd and his band all night. At one point, he stopped the show to engage in a melisma showdown with several of his background singers, including his daughter Aisha Morris. Once, his voice cracked and he burst into brief coughing fit, laughing at himself after he recovered.
He also preached a few times, once about the need for music and the arts in schools, many of which are cutting those programs.
Other highlights: “Ebony Eyes,” the best track on the “Extra” EP; “Isn’t She Lovely,” a devotional to his daughter; his stunning rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on harmonica; “Pastime Paradise,” which included a bit of “We Shall Overcome” and “Another Star,” in which Monae showed off her relentless charisma.
After that song, Wonder deemed himself DJ Tick Tick Boom before spinning a few tracks, including McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” which he dedicated to the Royals.
He closed with a medley of some of his biggest hits: “Do I Do,” “Higher Ground,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Living for the City,” then a full version of “Superstition,” one of his best songs ever. By then, the arena was a gigantic dance club filled with overjoyed and uninhibited patrons. Even some of the KCMO police officers submitted discreetly to its irresistible groove.
That joy sustained itself outside the arena after the show, where fans milled about, looking like they’d won much more than a pennant.
Love’s in Need of Love Today; Have a Talk With God; Village Ghetto; Contusion; Sir Duke; I Wish; Knocks Me Off My Feet; Pastime Paradise; Summer Soft; Ordinary Pain; Saturn; Ebony Eyes. Intermission. Isn’t She Lovely; Joy Inside My Tears; Black Man; All Day Sucker; Star Spangled Banner; Ngicuela--Es Una Historia/Tracks of My Tears/People Get Ready; If It’s Magic; As; Another Star; DJ Tick Tick Boom: Children’s Story/Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us/Can’t Feel My Face; Do I Do/Higher Ground/Signed, Sealed Delivered; Living For the City; Superstition.