Saturday, November 22, 2014

Joy and a Lot of Wonder -- Stevie Wonder, November 20, 2014

Playing Sir DukeL Stevie Wonder at The Palace of Auburn Hills, November 20, 2014
Songs in the Key of Life has always been, to me, the perfect album. An album of astonishing breadth, both topically and musically. An album in which every note, every utterance, seemed perfectly placed. The album that taught me why a great double album might have side one on a different disc than side 2, because of course I'd want to hear all 4 sides in order without having to get up so often to flip the disc. The album in which the "bonus" EP - though played far less often - was still superb.

I've seen Stevie play before, including once in Malmö, Sweden. But never behind this album. This tour, this short tour of just 11 dates, had "don't you dare miss this" all over it. Never mind the ticket price, this was a treat.

Thursday's snow storm resulted in a very late arriving crowd, and Stevie didn't take the stage until almost 9:15pm, more than an hour after the scheduled start time. Aided to the front of the stage by the luminous India Arie, Stevie gave a short introductory talk to his home area crowd, saying he was "keeping it real" before settling down to the keyboards for Love's In Need Of Love Today. Were there missed notes? Uhhh... no. Are you kidding? He didn't miss a note all night.


For Have A Talk With God, Stevie brought out India Arie for their first singing duet, and also Frédéric Yonnet to play harmonica. Village Ghetto Land featured the string section -- a major improvement to me over the synthesized sound on the album -- with Stevie inserting "still in 2014" in to the final line of the final verse, just to drive home the point that in too many ways nothing has really changed. On Contusion, he allowed the band to cut loose, and the audience for the first time really got to experience just how good his ensemble is (I counted 21 on stage in all, not counting Stevie, Yonnet, India Arie or the string section assembled locally just for this performance). Then, of course, the two blockbuster singles, with a totally joyous Sir Duke and a version of I Wish that just about blew the roof off the building.

Stevie didn't quite follow the album script precisely (not that there'd be anything wrong with that); after Knocks Me Off My Feet he seemed to improvise a 15-minute jam session, principally engaging Keith John (son of Little Willie John) in an astonishing vocal call-and-response, sandwiched around something, a middle-eastern melody of sorts, that Stevie said might become a new song. I'm told he didn't do that in New York, or at least didn't do that for 15-minutes. All that, leading to Pastime Paradise, engaging the strings again and now with the singers now singing "We Shall Overcome" in place of the album's Hare Krishna chant.
A little saxophone right here! Ebony Eyes,

After Ordinary Pain - in which his daughter Aisha (the subject of Isn't She Lovely) - played a major role, Stevie inserted the first two tracks from the EP. An excellent decision, as those tracks deserved a hearing other than as a postscript. It was always hard to put on that EP after side 4, and anyway the EP never played right unless I took off the LPs first. While listening to Saturn a couple days before the show, the lyrics "We can't trust you when you take a stand / with a gun and bible in your hand" stood out to me in a way I hadn't really noticed before. Before playing the song, Stevie gave an impassioned plea regarding gun violence (this being the evening after yet another school shooting), asking those audience members who agreed with him to stand. Most -- not all -- stood. Stevie pledged love for those who disagreed with him.

By this point it was intermission. At nearly 11pm, it was intermission. Enough time for us all to stand, get a beer, and say, more or less, this is a really good day to be alive, and here.

The emotional highlight of the 2nd set was Joy Inside My Tears. Stevie wiped away tears while playing it, and was openly sobbing at its end.

The late start did not mean a shorter show; just the opposite. It seemed Stevie wanted to honor the fans who "weathered the snow" (yes, he said that, I'm pretty sure) by just playing longer and longer.

Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing. Stevie Wonder and India Arie
About those encores, which didn't even start until after midnight: They were an exercise in joyous sadism. Stevie adopted an alternate persona. "My other name, is 'DJ Tick Tick Boom.' The way is works in this: You pay, we stay. If the price is right we'll jam all night." In which he'd land on one of his many hits, dial it up for a few second or maybe a verse or two with the band, and then... blow it up. Part-Time Lover? ok!! Boom! Uptight (Everything's Alright)? Yeah!!! Boom!!! Too High? Wow! Boom!!! Higher Ground? YES!! BOOM!!! And now, let's stop the DJ thing and bring on the live band: Do I Do??? Amazing, let's hear that Dizzy Gillespie solo!!! Boom!!! All I Do??? Sounds great, India Arie can do Michael Jackson's harmonies any time!!! Boom!!! If he'd had any more "I Do" songs, he might've spun those, too.  Master Blaster (Jammin')? Yeah!!! And that band can cook those songs. And... Boom!!!

Finally, Stevie issued one more challenge: If the audience could pick out the song based on the first two notes, he'd play the whole thing. No problem at all, we got a gorgeous version of My Cherie Amour, a song that's probably older than most of those in attendance. Superstition rocked the house and closed the show, sometime around a quarter to one. Stevie also said that he'd like to bring the band back to Detroit after the tour for a holiday charity show.

If you have a chance to see this tour, don't hesitate. See it. It's as good now as the album was then. Better, in fact.
Rocking out at the Palace. Part of Stevie Wonder's band.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

I'm With the Band

September 19: Full house for homecoming.
Today is recovery day.

Yesterday the West Bloomfield High School Marching Band, including both kids, performed at The Michigan Competing Bands Association (MCBA) State Finals at Ford Field in Detroit. The band finished in 9th place in Flight I, with a score of 88.125. Two years ago, that might as well have been written in Greek, but today I can translate every word of it.
August 22: At band camp.September 5: For the first half of the first game, the dress stayed casual.
Two years ago, I would never have expected to become a band dad. Aaron's school didn't even have a marching band, just a loose-knit ensemble of a few kids in a quasi-rock band that played various school events. They did ok, we had no complaints. Aaron played guitar, but with the encouragement of the group's advisor, he also tried electric bass, and it stuck. He started private lessons.

Then he decided to transfer to WBHS.

WBHS didn't have an ensemble, but they had a marching band. And the marching band had a pit section. And the pit section had a spot for an electric bass. Aaron had a new musical home.

A competing marching band in Michigan bears little resemblance to the high school bands of my youth in New Jersey. WBHS starts practicing in July. Once the school year starts, they practice for 3 hours after school, 3 days a week. Then there are competitions: two in September and then 3 more on October Saturdays, leading up to the state finals.
October 11. Final run-through for pit 
and battery before the Plymouth-Canton invitational.
October 11. The show was called "Rise and Fall."
This was the rise.
After playing in the pit last year, Aaron decided he wanted to march. So he quickly learned drums and tried out for tenor. Along the way, he talked Elianna in to trying out for vibraphone; she'd never played an instrument and she wasn't even a high school student or at one of the district's middle schools, but somehow she made it in. Being the right age and being resident in the school district is sufficient.

My involvement started in September. The band was heading to a competition in Dayton, Ohio. They needed more parent chaperones. They sent out an email. I looked at my calendar. I could do this. So I signed up to be with the band.

27 bands from 8 states showed up at Dayton's Welcome Stadium. For WBHS, it would be a chance to see some of the better regional bands, and to gauge our progress. My job was basically to make sure the kids didn't get lost during dinner, that they got to bed by the 11pm curfew, and that they were up the next morning in time for 6:30am breakfast at the hotel before playing at 9:45am. As long as I was there, I worked the pit crew, too. My assignment was to get a speaker stack on to the field for the performance, and off the field within 2 minutes after the performance. WBHS finished 24th place. But everyone seemed to have a good time.

October's 3 MCBA competitions would determine our seeding for state finals. We went as spectators twice and got to see the competition. For the other one, I looked at my calendar and realized I could work pit crew. I pushed a ramp up the hill to Clarkston's football stadium, and then out to the 10 yard line where the band used it in the show.

The rise. October 18th. Clarkston Invitational.
October 25th. Waiting to begin the show at Huron Valley.The fall. October 25th.
Huron Valley Invitational, where the wind scored points.
The pit crew is responsible for ensuring the band's equipment makes it to and from the field. The band has an 18-wheel truck, and before every performance it is loaded with the props and the larger instruments. Before departure, the volunteers -- usually with a lot of help from band members -- load the truck in a specified order, led by a couple senior volunteers who have been around and can direct matters. Upon arrival, it's time to unload the truck and to assemble the various props. This year the band used 5 ramps that were acquired from an Akron-based band earlier this year; for each show the ramps had to be re-assembled, taped, and put on wheels to get them to the field. In exchange for the work, the pit crew is excused from paying the admission fee to the show (though typically the unloading/loading activities prevent seeing most of the other bands), and the pit crew can join the band for whatever pre-show food is offered by other parent volunteers.

After the 2nd competition in October, WBHS had settled in to 9th place in the Flight I standings. Flight I consists of the largest schools in the state. At 83 band members, WBHS can't realistically produce as much sound as bands of 150-200 or more kids, so we need other factors -- visuals, precision, etc. -- to work well. But there are also internal goals: can the band improve each week? There are inevitably mishaps along the way: missed notes, dropped flag tosses, bad weather (during the last competition in Huron Valley, a strong wind led to both prop walls and performers falling over). But, we hoped, it would all work out for state finals.
November 1: It's 8:30 am and freezing. Time to rehearse!!November 1: Loading the truck. Destination Detroit.
State finals day started with rehearsal at 7am in blustery icy conditions on the WBHS football
field. By 9am the truck was loaded, and after a quick breakfast we headed down to Ford Field for a last warm-up and assembly of the props.

Getting down to the field at the stadium required a traverse down a very long, steep ramp. So steep that the MCBA provided wood blocks along the way to rest equipment during the frequent stops.

Bands play at 15 minute intervals, in reverse order of the standings. We started down the ramp at 12pm, while the 12th-place band was playing. We were not allowed to assemble in the end zone until half an hour later, when 10th-place Clarkston was playing.
Ford Field. At the end of the ramp, waiting to take the field.
Finally, it was WBHS's turn. I pushed the speaker stack I'd be assigned to the 30-yard line where the guitar player plugged in. The kids played their hearts out. Not that there weren't mishaps: in part due to the morning's wind, one streamer wasn't where Aaron was expecting, and he ended up running around the field holding air. An excellent acting job, I thought. The band scored its highest point total in 3 years.

After packing up the truck, everyone went back in to the stadium to watch the final 4 bands in Flight I. Pit crew normally aren't supposed to re-enter, but a few of us just played chaperone (the band needed a few, anyway). We're with the band.

Finally, the band had one last return and dismissal by 5pm, with complete exhaustion on all sides.
Elianna liked playing vibraphone. But she might want to try Color Guard next.
This is the only year that Aaron and Elianna could play together. Aaron will be off to whatever is next, next year. Elianna says she wants to try color guard.

For now, they get their afternoons back. Next week is the annual banquet. They'll get their patches for varsity jackets -- something Elianna won't even be eligible for until she enters high school next year. And they can say, "we played at Ford Field. We were in the band."
Running with air: At the state finals. Ford Field, Detroit. (photo: Cindy Lou Semrau)