My Pop Life #208 : I Can’t Win – Ry Cooder


Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

9th June 2018

We went to see Ry Cooder last night in the Town Hall a wonderful old venue with a really intimate feel on 43rd St, built in 1921 by suffragette supporters.  Jenny knew the venue from an event a couple of years ago directed by her godfather Nicolas Kent – it was a staging of the transcripts of Trump’s picks for Attorney General I think.  The beer is served in plastic cups with logos which cost $5 thus the first round was $28.  She did warn me to be fair, and they only charge you for the cup once.  What a world.

Ry Cooder opened with an old song called Nobody’s Fault But Mine which was written by Blind Willie Johnson then covered by everyone including Led Zeppelin.  He sat centre stage with a battered old acoustic guitar, his white hair covered with a blue wool bobble hat (without the bobble) and there was a young man playing a treated saxophone at the side.  Treated electronically, acoustically, sonically who knows it was haunting all night.  Cooder delivered the song with the authority of a delta bluesman, picking notes, sliding his bottleneck up and down the strings which twanged and shuddered and whispered under his touch.  He was so connected to this song, with the changes and the lyrics, it was evident in every note.

I was introduced to Ry Cooder by Sir Nick Partridge.  He wasn’t Sir Nick in those days, he was Nick P., a fresh-faced and pleasant young man who lived in the flat on West End Lane that Pete and Sali owned and that I lived in too.  He was my flatmate. Known Pete since schooldays.  I’d just finished my degree in Law at the LSE and Nick had graduated from Keele University doing International Relations.  We were all post-graduates suddenly.  I was saving money for a further “year off” as we called them back then.  This was 1979 and the future lay ahead of us. Education and academia was, it seemed, finally behind us.  We used to go record shopping together because there was so much to discover !  There still is some 40 years later !!!


Nick Partridge and Ralph Brown in a North London record shop, 1979.  Picture taken by Pete Thomas.

I was painting and decorating that summer in Pinner, and later moved onto a house in St John’s Wood, definitely worthy of its own post.  My previous mentions of this vivid era of my young adult life were in posts about Talking Heads (My Pop Life #92 ) John Martyn (My Pop Life #153) and The Specials (My Pop Life #178) and Nick features in all of them.  We were a little musical commune up there between the railways of the Jubilee Line to the south and the Thameslink line to Hertfordshire to the north PLUS the North London Line which carried nuclear waste past our building overnight while we listened to Ry Cooder and The Gladiators.  My girlfriend Mumtaz was in Mecklenburgh Square and would come and squat cross-legged on the floor with us as we passed the bliss.

In the evenings and at weekends we were all obsessed with listening to music and going to gigs.  Pete was very much a reggae aficionado but also fond of the quirky post-punk world emerging from the rubble of 1977, a plethora of independent labels issuing interesting stuff of all kinds like Wah! Heat, SpizzEnergi, Flying Lizards, or The Auteurs all with picture sleeves and original music.   In my capricious memory Sal was more into rock and I was a student new wave ex-punk who listened to soul, but Nick was always different.  Later he would live on a houseboat in Amsterdam doing a blues radio show but that’s another story, if you’re lucky.


It was Nick who had Boomer’s Story and Paradise & Lunch and in the stoned democratic disc jockey world of West End Lane between the rails, when he got his turn for an LP side, it would often be one of these Ry Cooder records which were kind of country kind of bluesy kind of funky, but often with an added flavour from somewhere else.  Americana it would be called now.


Then in 1979 he brought home an LP that looked like a new wave record, bright pink with a guitar player who looked a bit Nick Lowe but no.  It was the new Ry Cooder album called, unfeasibly, “Bop Til You Drop” and now we would all choose this record when our DJ turn came around.  Opening with a cover of Elvis Presley’s Little Sister but thereafter delving into obscure 60s R’n’B – Go Home Girl, Don’t You Mess Up A Good Thing, Trouble You Can’t Fool Me, Look At Granny Run Run – and a brilliant original song called Down In Hollywood (‘better hope that you don’t run out of gas…’), the album had a fantastic production quality on the guitar and backing vocals particularly.  In fact Bop Til You Drop was the first album ever recorded digitally.  Cooder is a magnificently rootsy guitarist, not a show-off in any way, but just tries to get the soul out of the instrument, and the backing vocals on the album were by Terry Evans & Bobby King who would later record their own record with Ry Cooder producing and playing on every track.  What I didn’t know until last night (too stoned to read the liner notes or maybe just not that nerdy after all) was that Chaka Khan sings on Down In Hollywood and Good Thing.   He had roughly the same line up last night – although not the same players.  Jenny turned to me at one point – probably during The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Will Make Me Poor) and said “What would you call this music?”  I said “country soul?”.  She could hear mariachi.  It’s funky.  It’s hawaiian.  It’s blues.   It’s music.


Cooder plays without any ego at all, and often uses the concert (and indeed many of his record releases) to showcase other people and give them a turn in the spotlight.  Last night it was his wonderfully relaxed backing singers The Hamiltones who played a couple of numbers while he left the stage, then joined them on guitar for another.  Earlier it had been his son Joachim who opened proceedings with his own music.  Ry Cooder it was who travelled to Havana in the 1990s breaking the Cuban boycott and encouraging the old stars of the 1950s to team up and record again, the resulting film and album opening up Cuba to the world once again and introducing me to Ruben Gonzales, Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo playing together as the incomparable Buena Vista Social Club.



He has recorded with the great Malian blues guitarist Ali Farke Toure on Talking Timbuktu, with Captain Beefheart on Safe As Milk (see My Pop Life #205) with Taj Mahal in the band Rising Sons, with Randy Newman on 12 Songs, the Rolling Stones on Let It Bleed & Sticky Fingers, on Lowell George‘s original version of Willin’.  All playing slide guitar or bottleneck.  In 1984 he composed the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas which starred Natassia Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton and following that became a sought-after soundtrack composer using his signature slide guitar.  He’s made albums with the latino community of Los Angeles such as Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti (Chavez Ravine) and if left to his own devices appears to be following in the footsteps of his hero 1940s political folkie Woody Guthrie.  Or one of his heroes.


Woody Guthrie 1943


In a new song last night he sang of a meeting between Jesus & Woody in heaven, looking down on what is happening now, from the vantage point of the 1950s when we had beaten the fascists and the world stretched out before us.

Jesus & Woody

Well bring your old guitar and sit here by me
Round the heavenly throne
Drag out your Oklahoma poetry, ’cause it looks like the war is on

And I don’t mean a war for oil, or gold, or trivial things of that kind
But I heard the news, the vigilante man is on the move this time

So sing me a song ’bout this land is your land
And fascists bound to lose
You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too

Once I spoke of a love for those who hate
It requires effort and strain
Vengeance casts a false shadow of justice which leads to destruction and pain
Some say I was a friend to sinners
But by now you know it’s true
Guess I like sinners better than fascists
And I guess that makes me a dreamer too

It was a chilling song but it wasn’t the only time that the name of Jesus was called.  One of Cooder’s biggest hits was gospel standard Jesus On The Mainline,  and with The Hamiltones‘ soulful harmonies it was a standout moment at the gig.  And it became clear to Jenny and I that we were really at a gospel show.  In the sense that the black church in America has long been a vehicle for resistance to oppression, using the biblical metaphors and stories to illustrate the struggle and gospel music to inspire and strengthen courage.  Cooder never went preachy, but he was very clear where he stood.  He mentioned Trayvon Martin before playing a song called The Vigilante.  It was the lack of ego that was most striking in the end.  Playing the guitar to try and find the most expressive notes, not to show-off or strike poses.


Ry Cooder With Taj Mahal, 1968

And indeed, it seems to me this morning thinking back on Sir Nick as a young man in West Hampstead, smoking dope with a generous smile and a ready laugh that he had no ego then or indeed now.  He always had an easy manner where embarrassment was never far from the surface, mixed with laughter and great empathy.  I went to Hampstead Magistrates with him one day and watched him with his gentle phrasing and easy manner talk his middle-class way out of a conviction and get a finger-wagging in its place.


Sir Nick with Kirsten O’Brien

Shortly after the Amsterdam year he joined The AIDS charity The Terrence Higgins Trust in 1985 becoming Chief Executive in 1991 and finally moving on in 2013 after 28 years of service and a knighthood which followed his OBE.   We formed a close bond in those 1979-1980 days and nights and beyond into the frisbee-playing, gay nightclubbing, political 1980s, stayed in touch right up until today.  I had no idea that he was gay back then but he’s never made a big deal out of it or changed his basic persona of decency, sincerity and jokes.


Sir Nick talks with brother Andrew, Whitstable Bay.  My dad can be seen with check shirt on the pebbles between them


Paul Brown is 50 in his beach hut and quite a tremendous shirt

The first time any of us saw Nick after he was knighted in the 2009 New Year Honours was at my brother Paul’s 50th birthday celebration which he held in Whitstable, Kent.  It was a wonderful weekend of family – Dad & Beryl came down from Yorkshire, Becky was back in Sussex by then and Jenny and I had summer son Jordan in tow – Dee’s youngest who had a key period of spending the summer with us in Brighton.  Sir Nick was there in the beach-hut, Paul was back from Shanghai mixing cocktails in a straw hat, Richard Davies (Lady G) was probably DJing and drinking at the same time and a splendid time was guaranteed and enjoyed by all.

Nick and his husband Simon have been to New York since we moved here – I remember him asking me what he should see on Broadway – it was 2016.  I had a one-word answer : Hamilton.  He bought tickets online, then I had to go to work when he was here so I missed him, but he saw the show and, of course, loved it.


Paulette & Beverley Randall, Paul Brown & Sir Nick Partridge, London 2015

I did see him the year before when Paul was in London for his birthday a couple of years ago – 2015 I guess.  And then he came to send me off on my 60th birthday last summer when I hardly spoke to anyone, but hugged everyone.   I am extremely fond of him and will always be grateful for his friendship and for bringing Bop Til You Drop (and Memphis Slim…) into my life.

The last song on the album is called I Can’t Win and it is a haunting and soulful three-part harmony, simply a beautiful song about being in love with someone who isn’t responding.  We’ve all been there, but I haven’t made a habit of it thank god.  When the gig finished last night the entire band went off for about 90 cursory seconds then returned immediately as we all stood and clapped for the encore.  And they sang I Can’t Win with piercing harmonies that made the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end.  It was the pinnacle on a great night.  And it’s already up on Youtube.

Live at Town Hall June 8th 2018:

Album Version :


My Pop Life #164 : Blitzkrieg Bop – The Ramones

Blitzkrieg Bop   –   The Ramones

Hey ho, let’s go
Shoot’em in the back now
What they want, I don’t know
They’re all revved up and ready to go

December 31st 1977.  My brother Paul and I, punked up on speed, chains, eyeliner and nail varnish are buzzing around outside The Rainbow in Finsbury Park, a large seated venue which is going punk rock for the night.  Our seats are central, about 12 rows from the front.  Ace.  We missed opening act The Rezillos, and caught the end of Generation X whom we didn’t like.  We were there for The Ramones.

I’d gone from hippy long-hair walking around the LSE in a poncho, cowboy boots and stetson to clean-chinned spiky-haired punk overnight, flares were OUT, brothel -creepers were IN, and I’d created a punk garment out of an old dinner jacket I’d found in a flea market, putting paperclips around all the edges, lapels and pockets. It either looked a) brilliant or b) shit.   Can’t remember.  It was a fantastic time to be in London, there was a visceral thrill rippling through the scene and as a dedicated follower of fashion I dived right in.  Let’s see :  I’d already been a wannabe hippie about a decade late, a glam-rocker, skinhead, suedehead, and back to country-rock groover again.  Now I Was A Punk.  A new orthodoxy.  Dyed the hair – purple initially.  Took speed – amphetamine sulphate – in pill form, “blues” which were 4 for a pound.  Read the fanzines such as Mark Perry’s Sniffin’Glue.  Didn’t actually sniff glue – not that stupid.  Went to punk gigs in the correct clothes.   All the time I was a law student.  Having a laugh.  Enjoying myself.   It was a musical and fashion revolution, and like all revolutions there was a pretty regimented code to follow – of music, of clothes, of haircuts.  Some things were OUT and some things were IN.  Us 19-year-olds weren’t about to throw away our record collections because they contained songs that were over 3 minutes long and featured drum solos.  And most of my mates didn’t cut their hair like lil’ old fashion-victim me.  But I’ve always enjoyed dressing up, the more flamboyant and outrageous the better, and I embraced the punk fashion like a born-again Leninist.   Paul and I went gigging, to The Roxy, The Vortex, The Hope, the Nashville Rooms.  Exciting times.  God Save The Queen had been number 1 in the hit parade in June (see My Pop Life #113) then the top singles Pretty Vacant and Holidays In The Sun had graced Top Of The Pops before the mighty LP Never Mind The Bollocks was finally released in late October.   I’d managed to get to see The Sex Pistols at Brunel University in December ’77 on the Never Mind The Bans tour before they left for the States and split up forever.   The publicity and notoriety the band had generated in their short lifetime was quite extraordinary, mainly the result of manager Malcolm McLaren‘s media hijinks and a realisation that controversy sells records.   The Anarchy tour in 1976 had been cancelled apart from a handful of gigs – Manchester, Plymouth, Caerphilly, Leeds, and as such they were a media phenomenon rather than a genuinely popular live band.  But the singles were brilliant.

The reason why I mention all of this is because the Pistols owed a huge debt to The Ramones.  As did The Clash (see My Pop Life #52) who I eventually got to see on Hastings Pier in 1978.  Both young punk bands had gone to see The Ramones play at The Roundhouse on July 5th 1976, while I was hitch-hiking around the USA listening to Pure Prairie League and Wings and buying my cowboy boots. The previous night The Ramones had supported The Flamin’ Groovies there and word had spread.   I think The Stranglers may have been on this gig too.  It ignited the nascent UK punk scene.   And yes I know that the first punk single was New Rose by The Damned (Oct 28th 1976) a band that I never saw live.

The Ramones first single was Blitzkrieg Bop 8 months earlier.  They were from Forest Hills, Queens, New York City and played their first gigs in 1974, then built a gigging following at Manhattan dives Max’s Kansas City and CBGB over the following years.   John Cummings (Johnny Ramone), Douglas Colvin (Dee Dee Ramone), Jeffrey Hyman (Joey Ramone) and Thomas Erdelyi (Tommy Ramone).  They had a PLAN.  A concept. Short, simple songs with a buzzing guitar and a nasal lead vocal from Joey.  All the band changed their surname to Ramone.  This was Dee Dee’s idea, based on the Paul McCartney pseudonym Paul Ramon, used when they toured Scotland as The Silver Beetles.  True dat.  The Ramones all wore white Ts, ripped blue jeans and cut their hair in a bowl cut.   Almost Rubber Soul but more attitude. They all appeared permanently bored and sullen.  The effect was instant gang.

Johnny, Tommy, Joey, Dee Dee on the cover of the 1st LP

Taking bits from The MC5, The New York Dolls and The Stooges, The Ramones were and are the first punk band, and released Blitzkrieg Bop in February 1976, the first single off the first punk LP called simply Ramones in April 1976.  The cover is iconic, a photograph by Roberta Bayley.

The song is fast and short like all their songs, and opens with a chant A-O-Let’s Go.  Like a terrace anthem, apparently inspired by R’n’B singer Rufus Thomas, but see below (!) the song clocks in at 2 minutes 14 seconds.  Like a statement of intent, no guitar solos, no drum solos, just bang and finish, the song describes the feeling of being at a punk gig, the kids are losing their minds…the blitzkrieg bop we sang along as we all jumped up and down like good pogoing punks the pulsating back beat, generating steam heat, and the odd but effective line “shoot ’em in the back now” rewritten by Dee Dee from the original “shouting in the back now“.    There are hints of Nazism in their work, hints of stupid, hints of violence, prostitution, murder. Otherwise it would be pop.  It didn’t sell at all, and neither did the LP.  In fact it’s probably true that The Ramones had more effect in the UK than they did in America.  At least initially.

Their 2nd LP Leave Home – marvellous ! – was released in January 1977 and their third LP Rocket To Russia in November 1977.  Rocket to Russia clocks in at around 33 minutes long, and no song is longer than 2 minutes 49 seconds (Sheena Is A Punk Rocker).  And what fantastic records they are.  Hard to describe perfect music.

But Blitzkrieg Bop does tip a wink to two unlikely 1970s British acts – The Bay City Rollers and The Sweet.  Not the first time The Rollers have appeared in this blog – see My Pop Life #11 – but here they are again under controversial circumstances – the übercool leaders of punk in the same sentence as the flimsy teenypop nonsense of The Bay City Rollers ???  Well, bear with me pop fans :  The bubblegum influence is there in the chords and shapes of the music and the chant which opens the song Blitzkrieg Bop is perhaps an imaginative leap from the Roller’s ‘Saturday Night‘.  Less controversially of course The Sweet had a mighty hit single with Ballroom Blitz.  These things aren’t all in opposition you know.

Paul and I had popped a few blues each, the trick was that every few hours you topped yourself up otherwise the crashing comedown would spoil the party.  Of course you had to comedown sometime, and weed would be the cushion, joint-rolling sessions to puff away and soften the teeth-grindingly edgy  experience of the amphetamines leaving the body.  But the ascent – coming up – was a surge, the veins throbbing with juice, the mouth needing to chew, light cigarettes, inhale constant smoke, the fingers twitching.  All revved up and ready to go COME ON !  As the lights went down and the iconic four Ramones took the stage under their All-American Presidential Seal eagle logo the whole place erupted and we all surged to the front.  Down the aisles at first, then the front fifteen rows of seats simply collapsed, security melted away and punks ruled.

Paul and I ended up on top of a broken seat or two along with hundreds of other punks as the first eye-popping shout “1,2,3,4” from Dee Dee took us into opening song Rockaway Beach.  We bounced we sweated we punched the air.  People spat, threw beer.  Blitzkrieg Bop was the 3rd number.  Our heroes were better and bigger and faster and funnier than we could have dreamed.  WOW.  Tommy Ramone on the drums drove the band, with Johnny Ramone (the Republican!) on motorik rhythm guitar, only playing barre chords, only playing down just like Paul Cook and Steve Jones drove the Sex Pistols.  Dee Dee on bass wrote many of the songs but only played root notes, and Joey was the gimmick : tall, gangling, hidden by hair and shades and affecting a bored stupid glazed persona.  If the album tracks and singles were short, live they were even shorter, they just played FASTER.  It was thrilling.  I just remember bouncing and holding onto Paul to stop us from falling down.  Chewing gum was chewed.  Lager was drunk. Pills were popped.  Definitely one of the top gigs of my life.

It was brought to my attention recently that the whole gig was released as a live album called It’s Alive in 1979.  How I missed this is inexplicable to me, but I did.  It’s the whole gig, almost, that we were at.  There is also a concert DVD in which Paul and I undoubtedly appear, but I haven’t seen us yet, or have I ?

In common with all live albums after a certain date (WHAT IS THAT DATE? – Ed) the guitars, vocals and bass were all dubbed on again in the studio so er….it’s not live is it?

It was then though.  They wished us Happy New Year, showered us with glitter and we spat at them.  At the end of the show, after three encores – the last song was We’re A Happy Family :

Sitting here in Queens
Eating refried beans
We’re in all the magazines
Gulpin’ down thorazines
We ain’t got no friends
Our troubles never end
No Christmas cards to send
Daddy likes men

and off they went whereupon everyone threw their broken seats – the ones they’d been standing on – onto the stage.    It had been, we all agreed, a legendary gig.  They’re all dead now – Joey, Tommy and Johnny from cancer, Dee Dee from a heroin overdose.  They live on in a thousand T-shirts across the world, a logo instantly recognisable and still worn by teenagers and old punks.  They also left behind a permanent legacy.  Whatever anyone says – they started punk.

My Pop Life #39 : Knocks Me Off My Feet – Stevie Wonder

Featured image

Knocks Me Off My Feet   –   Stevie Wonder

…but there’s something ’bout your love… that makes me weak and knocks me off my feet…

It is an indication of how musically unformed I was at the time that I didn’t rush out and buy Talking Book when it came out in 1972 –  I saw Stevie Wonder singing Superstition on Top Of The Pops one Thursday evening.  I liked it – and ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life‘ – but it wasn’t until I was 16 and hanging around with girls that the magic started to work it’s course under my skin, into my bones.  Tanya Myers was in the year below me and friends with other girls that Simon knew mainly called Jane.  We were at Tanya’s house in 1973 – she was gorgeous but I was with Miriam Ryle at this point – and we listened to Innervisions from start to finish.  Quite soon after that I bought it, and Talking Book, then late in 1976 Songs In The Key Of Life, a double album with an extra single inside the packaging, 21 songs in all.  By then I had also heard Fulfillingness’ First Finale since Mumtaz owned it and we listened to it a lot, I think at some point in my mid 20s (the soul years) I bought Music Of My Mind from 1971.   

Featured image

Featured image

Featured image

Featured image

Featured image

Thus we have the run of LPs from 71-76 that represent a Himalayan mountain range of musical excellence, with Songs In the Key Of Life being most folk’s pinnacle moment.  It’s hard to have favourites with Stevie Wonder, but mine is Innervisions.   And if you go back to 1970 there’s another superb LP called Where I’m Coming From which was his final LP under the first contract with Tamla Motown and is the true beginning of Stevie making the music he wanted to make, rather like Marvin Gaye his label stablemate, who made What’s Goin’ On in the same year, with the same desire to stretch out beyond the pop confines of Motown.  And beyond 1976 is the pause for breath before the brilliant but uneven indulgence of Secret Life Of Plants in 1979 and 1980’s genuine masterpiece Hotter Than July and on into the 1980s with more wonderful music (Overjoyed is outright stunning) right up to the present day.  A Time 2 Love was released in 2005 and is a five star piece of writing and singing, a really great LP that everyone inexplicably ignored.  But critical focus has always been on that run of five albums from 71-76 when Stevie wrote every song (some co-writes) played almost every instrument, arranged and produced every song after teaching himself how to play every instrument (and he’s an excellent drummer as youtube will testify).  Of course the list of credits on Songs.. is as long as your arm though, trumpet players, vibes, harps, singers.

Featured image

I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time sitting at a piano trying to play Stevie Wonder songs.  There are chord books.  I’ve got three of them.   Before the internet of course.  I think “Golden Lady” was the first one I could play all the way through.  I learned about complicated music via Stevie Wonder.  The Beatles Songbook taught me the major, the minor, the sixth and occasionally the seventh or major seventh.  Stevie Wonder taught me the minor 9th(last word of “you are the sunshine of my life), the diminished 5th (My Cherie Amour), the Gminor7th/ Eb bass (Golden Lady), the Bbminor9(11) (Lately).   You’re into an arena where each chord voicing can be written any number of ways.  I had to count down the stave to find out  what they are.  The chords sound amazing, stretched, deep, rich.   Apparently he learned keyboards at Hitsville USA in Detroit singing hits with The Funk Brothers, (Motown’s backing band of jazzers who played on every song the label produced) “he’d come up to me and ask me ‘what chord is that – show me‘ said Earl Van Dyke the main keyboard player.

Featured image

I’ve seen Stevie live three times.  First time : Wembley Arena, 1990.  Second time 02 London 2009. Third time last Sunday April 12th 2015 Barclays Centre Atlantic Avenue Brooklyn.  It’s a basketball arena so it’s like sitting inside a nutshell, tight, steep sides, all great views.  We had floor seats because we’d missed this show in October at Madison Square Garden, thinking a friend would be able to get us in, sometimes in life You Have To Buy The Ticket.  So these were “expensive” in the vernacular but I would have paid triple, quintuple.  It was overwhelming.

He came onstage with India Arie guiding him and stood still – to a standing ovation naturally.  He thanked us and said it was his honour to be able to play the show tonight for us.  It made me wonder how old he is, a question that went up and down our row of seats throughout the show.  When he smiles he looks under 40 years old.  At other points, singing blues, he looked 80.  He spoke softly about wanting to play us the whole of his 1976 masterpiece Songs In The Key Of Life, then sat down at the keyboard and the concert began.  Immediate goosebumps, eyewater and hairs on the back of the neck rising as the singers moaned the opening harmonies to Love’s In Need Of Love Today. “Good morn or evening friends, here’s your friend the announcer…”  I was crying by this point, 30 seconds into the show.

Featured image

So hard to place into readable words what was happening at this show.   So just a few facts before I melt into hyperbole.  Village Ghetto Land had a twelve-piece string section.  Contusion showcased the guitar players in a red-hot jazz funk workout.  Sir Duke destroyed the building when the six horn players stood up and stabbed it to death – we could feel it all over, everyone was on their feet dancing and stayed there for the irresistible groove of I Wish when we all transported ourselves back to childhood for the song.  Then I was in tears again for Knocks Me Off My Feet which is one of the first songs I learned on the piano, and is in my Stevie top five.   Then he took a noodle on the piano and started making the singers copy his vocal trills.  One at a time, talking to them, mimicking their voices, making them sing complex vocal melodies that he made up on the spot.  At one point the three women stage right – who were all unfeasibly gorgeous and busty by the way – broke into En Vogue’s Hold On before Stevie stopped them and told them to be quiet.  He was in such a great mood.  Then he got the lead violinist – a local chap – stand up and play, solo.  Believe me when I say he took his moment, astonishing work.  Then Stevie stood up and took the mic and the sharp sad strings of Pastime Paradise sliced through the arena, as the band were joined by a choir for the final heart-rending moments.

Featured image

Summer Soft was immaculate, Ordinary Pain was fierce, then on came India Arie in a science fiction dress and hat to help him sing Saturn, one of my favourite songs.   Then Stevie stood up unassisted and walked across to the stand-up joanna, or tack piano, honky-tonk to you.   A ripple of relieved applause made him turn “What you clapping for?  You think I’m not gonna make it?”  We laughed.  “I been lying about being blind for the last two years – I can see y’all!’  and into latin-jazz showtune Ebony Eyes, complete with talkbox tube guitar effect and cracking sax solo and we were into the interval.

Featured image

Everyone’s eyes were glazed, people were smiling, Tony Gerber and I were stunned, sat down, Lynn Nottage and Jenny went to the ladies together.  The french harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet who played the opening to Have A Talk With God was talking with his friends just in front of us and I thank him for the gig, he thanks Stevie.   Stevie was trying so hard to be ordinary, joking, using a faux english accent, messing about musically but then in the middle of a song I would find myself staring at him singing and thinking “OH MY GOD IT’S STEVIE WONDER”.

Part two opened with Stevie introducing us to his grand-daughter who is about 2 years old and said ‘Hello’ which took us into Isn’t She Lovely and the greatest harmonica playing I have ever witnessed in my life.  More tears, another highlight.  Somehow the next song – un-noticed by me usually – was even better, even more emotional.  Joy Inside My Tears became a church-hall testimony as Stevie pounded the keyboard and shook his fists at the sky and the crowd roared its approval.  Amazing moments.  Black Man continued the hot-tempo passion as the band moved into funk workout mode and steam started rising from the stage.  Jenny shouted “Harriet Tubman – A Black Woman” at Lynn at the appropriate moment.  Now they were using some of the original sounds and quotes from the LP and as we slid slinkliy into All Day Sucker, which is funk cubed, the roof was being raised.   Stevie then stood up with his harmonica and walked over to the side of the stage and performed the quirky exotic instrumental Easy Goin’ Evening with the other harmonica player and the sax player.  This was a moment to treasure, I’ve never heard anything like it.  It sounded like a gypsy lament.  You could hear the proverbial pin drop.  India Arie and singer Jessica Cruz joined him for Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing which was beautiful and joyful and happy.  All the actual songs from the LP Songs In The Key Of Life – the 21 jewels in the crown – were presented with incredible attention to detail, real passion and love and clearly the players were all experts.  They each had a place in the sun, a moment to themselves, and they all took it with pride and aplomb.

Then, Stevland Morris, 64 years old (Jenny correctly guessed) back centre stage, produced an odd-looking lap instrument – a zither ? that appeared to have at least 12 strings and sounded like an electric guitar with effects, but he played it like a piano.  Although it had a fretboard.  He started chatting to us.  He started playing notes, anything, noodling.  “We’re musicians, we like to jam”.  It’s called a harpejji.   I heard Yesterday, Mrs Robinson, and many other snatches of melody that I can’t remember already – two days later ! – before settling on the four-chord cycle of Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready and India Arie joined him as he covered the whole song.  Then he asked India to sing Wonderful her own tribute song to Stevie.  He liked that. He asked us if we liked it, and we said yes, so he asked us to sing along to Tequila a 1958 hit from The Champs (!)  (You’ll know it.)  Next was Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel and we were in Stevie Karaoke land.  He made us sing (ladies first, then gentlemen) a melody line that he’d just made up.  We belted it out.  These excursions into covers, improvisations and chat seemd like a way of taking the monumentality out of the show.  A hugely influential double-LP played live as if it were a classical piece  – which it is obviously – interrupted by rehearsed jams.  Chat.  Jokes jokes.  But they only served to deepen the intimacy already present in our  knowledge and love for the LP, carried inside us for years as a treasure, now unfolding before us, not as an edifice, but as an old friend, a jam session in Stevie’s sound world.  His continual reference to his blindness had the same effect : “I see it how I hear it” .   But the monumental feeling remained : the temple of love was real.

Featured image

And then we were hushed and Stevie explained that the world’s premier harpist who’d played on the album in 1976 – a black woman called Dorothy Ashby – would be accompanying him on If It’s Magic, but that since she died in 1986 they would be using the original music from the LP as a backing track. Stevie sang it perfectly, mimicking his 26-year old self – more tears, more vulnerable open hearts, more hand-holding as Jenny and I and thousands of people melted together.

Every time you hate on somebody you are blocking your blessing.  And your family’s blessing.  Your street’s blessing.  Your city’s blessing.  The world’s blessing.   We have to release the power of love.  It’s the most powerful force in the world.”

As around the sun the earth knows she’s revolving
And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May
Just as hate knows love’s the cure
You can rest your mind assure
That I’ll be loving you always
As now can’t reveal the mystery of tomorrow
But in passing will grow older every day
Just as all is born is new
Do know what I say is true
That I’ll be loving you always

We’re on our feet, we’re singing, the entire band is on stage – two drummers, bass man Nate Watts (who has been with Stevie for decades) three guitars, two more keyboard players, six brass & woodwinds, two percussionists, six backing singers, twelve strings, 15 in the choir plus India Arie and Frédéric Yonnet, over 30 people are playing Another Star and we’re going to church in Stevie’s parlour, the joy is infectious and huge.

They don’t leave the stage after Stevie takes his bow and introduces us to every single member of his band, saying “Wow – we did it – we played it all – it’s 11.40”  we looked at our phones – he was right ! “we’re gonna play til midnight.  This is Stevie’s disco”  He had a table with button on it and we got bits of Boogie On Reggae Woman, Jungle Fever, Do I Do, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Uptight, then the whole band sang Living For The City (woo!) and Superstition (wow!) and that was it.

It was midnight and he’d been onstage (with a 20-minute interval) since 8.20.  We were lifted up into the night air and floated home, high.  It was a huge cultural moment, like watching Gustav Mahler conduct his 5th Symphony or Chopin playing the Ballades.   And yet he’d been so humble, so funny, so human. And one of the greatest singers I’ve ever witnessed in a live setting.   Knocked off my feet.

Songs In The Key Of Life.