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In Montreal, Stevie sings emotional MJ memorial

Thomas Leenders
In Montreal, Stevie sings emotional MJ memorial
Music legend Stevie Wonder sings during the kickoff of the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal on Tuesday, June 30, 2009, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. While Wonder was the festival’s guest of honor, it was the looming presence of another musician — the late Michael Jackson — that gave the show its indelible gravitas. (Photo: Festival International de Jazz de Montreal/Denis Alix)

MONTREAL — You certainly have to hand it to the city of Montreal for kicking off the 30th anniversary of their world famous Festival International de Jazz in style. While Stevie Wonder was the guest of honor, it was the looming presence of another legendary musician — the late Michael Jackson — that gave the show its indelible gravitas.

Wonder’s performance last Tuesday took the crowd of 200,000 through a series of emotions from ecstasy to tears, just as smoothly as the renowned singer can transition from soulful funk to RandB balladry.

Wonder made his intentions clear at the outset before he even took his seat behind the piano: “I want us to do something very, very special tonight … I want for us to celebrate the life and legacy of Michael Jackson.”

Sure enough, the intense two-and-a-half-hour set paid tribute to Jackson from beginning to end. From Wonder’s opening speech — in which he minced no words, saying exactly what he thought about the media circus around Jackson’s death and where those profiting off the tragedy could stick it — to the moving, if unorthodox, finale, the concert was indeed very special.

Wonder laid down the groove upon a rainy packed downtown Montreal in three deft acts. The first act, arguably the least popular with the crowd, seemed to be a period of acclimatization.

The clearly emotional Wonder wrestled to settle his grief-choked voice to match the key of his first song. But after a bumpy start, the damp Montreal air was warmed with Wonder’s voice and the inimitable collision between his fingers and the keys of his electric piano to the tune of “I Can’t Help It” — a song Wonder co-wrote with Jackson.

Wonder’s band — which featured brass, additional keyboards, multiple percussionists and backup singers, including his own daughter Aisha — rounded out the act, a showcase for new material and some of the more sophisticated numbers from his back catalogue. Nevertheless, the audience, judging by their comparative lack of enthusiasm, seemed to struggle to engage with much of this lofty, cerebral fare, although they gamely sang along whenever prompted to, which was often. So intent was Wonder on securing audience participation that he would stop mid-set, even mid-song to provide vocal tutorials and more detailed instructions, prompting only the men to sing a given line, the ladies another.

In the second act, Wonder played to the sensibilities of the core audience, effectively spoiling them with jazzier numbers. At several points during the show, Wonder piped prerecorded Jackson songs through the sound system, singing along himself.

Such a decision, however laudable in its tributary intent, might have tempered the performance’s flow. But to the contrary, the audience seemed to mostly follow the homage’s wavelength — they even burst out in cheers when, toward the second half of the act, Wonder began to jam along, whipping up jazzy vocal harmonies and key riffs.

The audience was especially won over by a minor-key, ponderous rendition of the Beatles’ hit “Michelle” — an especially fitting choice for one of the most bilingual cities in the world — chanting the French and English words with such fervor that they needed no further coaching.

In a triumph of pacing, the third act saw Wonder’s biggest singles animating the audience’s feet, most of which had spent the last hours previous wading through the crowd and standing in wait, often in puddles. Appropriately enough, the sky followed suit and the rain recommenced.

Not that the audience seemed to mind — they grooved along to classics like the low-down and dirty, Hammond-organ driven “Superstition” and “Higher Ground,” as well as universal pleasers “Uptight (Everything is Alright),” “Sir Duke” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

For the closing number, Wonder and his band again graciously deferred to Michael Jackson, joining the crowd in singing and dancing along to a medley of the late star’s hits. As the last song, “Man in the Mirror,” reached its final cadence, Wonder was again clearly choked up. His tears were contagious.

As Wonder said at the outset, “The truth of the matter is … what we — who loved the fact that God blessed us with him and his talent, his voice, his music [and] dance, and [loved] that he gave us joy — what we can do is we can continue to keep the life and the spirit of this man’s music alive forever.”