Stevie Wonder was more than halfway through his secret show at Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, getting amped for another sing-along, when one of his singers brought out a fiery cake with an actual guitar in the place of a candle.
"I didn't see it coming!" Wonder said ironically. And then we all sang him "Happy Birthday." Like the Stevie Wonder version of the song? We sang it to Stevie Wonder. This actually happened last night.
On the eve of Stevie's special day, he performed an intimate show to a crowd of both sitters and crazed dancers at a paired down Hard Rock Live. The casino invited him as part of a new initiative to give their VIP clients new kinds of entertainment experiences. And we were there.
The plan to please guests was definitely successful. But the night started out slow, and Stevie noticed, but it doesn't actually matter what the first 90 percent of a concert is like, it's the last 10 or 20 minutes that make a lasting impression.
The room was set up with huge curtains to block out the bleacher seats. Tables, chairs, and blow-up couches speckled the area in front of Hard Rock's stage. There was a Cirque du Soleil feel, with dancers in bubbles and blue wandering about the room posing, and moving their arms, as if through water, on small stages. The guy who introduced Stevie informed us that this was a "dance party," so if we stood up, they'd be taking our seats away. This didn't happen, of course. Lawsuits and broken hips do not a good party make.
You know that New Year's Eve Modern Family episode when Mitchell and Cameron go to a young guy gay bar and feel old. Then they end up next door and it's like the older gentleman's bar, and they're thrilled, because they're the sexiest, most spry dudes there? Well, early in the night, it felt like that; we were the youngest pair in the place.
Folks were excited, but sitting, and many remained seated throughout the night. People were rolling around in motorized vehicles, but smiling and taking pics with the "Under the Sea"-styled dancers. One guy next to us sent a text: "Life is good! I'm at a Stevie Wonder Concert!" The sweet waitress kept asking us if we wanted drinks, and we kept saying, no thanks, cause we already had some. Then she was like, "you know they're free, right?"
But, duh, you're thinking, it's a Stevie Wonder show, it's not a Skrillex blowout. But as the lights lowered and Stevie took to the stage, the youngsters began infesting the space of the middle-aged jammers. But the best dancers were definitely not the 25 year olds. They were the your mama types, busting loose.
There were two rules of the night: don't tell anyone about this beforehand, and don't take any pictures per Stevie's request. But it's funny, even Baby Boomers seem compelled to document every moment of their lives like tweens, and many held up their camera phones to the stage for very long blocks of time. These videos will likely never make it past the recording stage.
Stevie is, at least in our limited two-time experience, the kind of guy who needs the audience to respond and participate. And at first, everyone's voices were weak. But his "yeah, yeah, yeah, yeahhhh" type sing-alongs were complex as hell! He seemed to be confused that the small crowd wasn't super loud. At first, he did a bunch of covers though, and that might have made the difference. Because once he got heavy into Stevie Wonder songs, that's when things got cray.
He covered love songs, by the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and Bob Marley. After "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)," he said the song wasn't just about the love between two people, but love for the Almighty. "Amen!" We waited to shout until later in the show. Once the band got to "Superstition" and "Part-Time Lover" -- when he brought the two best "ba dum dum dum" and "yeah yeahhhh yeahhh yeah" singers, one guy, one gal, on stage to croon -- things had way heated up, and bums were bumping. The size of the audience had dwindled, but those still there at 11 were beaming. Sure he didn't play "Isn't She Lovely" or "My Cherie Amour," but he was too busy bringing the soulful funk. It was a dance party, for Christ's sake.
Everyone has a personal mythology that involves at least one Stevie Wonder song. His music is woven through every one of our lives. Our memories of parties, childhood, every stage of growing up, of being grown up, has a Stevie moment in it. And so, we all, from grandmas to college kids, swayed and emoted, beneath him, bathed in his pure talent.
Personal Note: I saw Stevie Wonder perform the night before Al Gore "lost" the election on the sands of South Beach with Deborah Cox and Jon Bon Jovi. He made us sing something like "1, 2, 3, 4, vote for Al Gore!" for three hours. And we did, cause it's Stevie.