It was another beautiful Sunday in Los Angeles and the latest installment of KCRW’s World Music Festival at the Hollywood Bowl is in the books. This time, rather than a selection of three or four great bands, the event featured a house band led by the Tonight Show with Jay Leno’s Rickey Minor and a revolving door of top-notch singers. Most importantly, this lineup promised a prominent inclusion from the legendary likes of Stevie Wonder. With only a few minor exceptions, the roster of talent was stupendous for this show, dubbed Global Soul with Rickey Minor, Stevie Wonder and Friends.
The first half of the event showcased a wide array of eclectic artists, each getting about two or three songs to strut their stuff backed by a full house band. First up was Nigerian singer/guitarist Bombino. Bombino was smoothed-out funkiness, taking loose melodies and working them out into nimble solos. Next up, a seven-piece group called The Soul Seekers took the stage. Joining the house band on various instruments, they served up a Gospel-based approach to the soul sound. After their first number, a technical difficulty caused much of the house band’s power to go out. The problem was rectified soon enough, but cost the show as a whole some valuable minutes in what was a super packed schedule.
Longtime Los Angeles local act Mia Doi Todd followed The Soul Seekers, opting for the quietest sound of the evening. Todd did simple romantic ballads, accompanied mostly by lightly plucked acoustic guitar. Veering slightly away from soul, Ceci Bastida of the Mexican ska punk group Tijuana NO! brought forth an electro rock style. Bastida’s flavor was a nice divergence, managing to add (relatively) modern music technology to the music without drifting towards full-on four-to-the-floor club music. Hailing from Ghana, Rocky Dawuni was the first of the evening’s performers to raise the crowd to their to feet to dance. After his own songs “Afroroots Vibration” and “Extraordinary Woman,” the crowd happily danced along to a cover of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.”
Rarely do artists find their success 60 plus years into life, but that’s just what Charles Bradley has done. Sixty-two years old, Bradley’s career is just beginning and solidly won over the crowd with a few concise numbers where he put every ounce of his body and heart into his delivery. Most likely few knew him coming into this set, and by the end he had a standing ovation.
And then lastly—and most curiously—to end off the first half of the evening was Grace Potter of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Without being mean, Potter just did not belong on this bill. Potter has presence and has pushed hard these last couple of years to revel in a throaty blues-rock style. However, decked out in the flimsiest short dress imaginable, most of her performance just screamed, “trying too hard.” Compared with nearly every performer around her on this evening, her antics just felt forced.
After a short intermission, the real star of the evening Janelle Monae practically burned the place down with overwhelming skill and passion. She began eloquently with an understated rendition of early career track, “Smile” lightly cooing with artful grace each flowing syllable. After that, she did a combo medley of two of her biggest hits “Cold War” and “Tightrope.” It has to be said, Monae is a superstar in the making. It’s visibly apparent by watching her just how much she puts into her performance. Her voice has a charged energy to it. It’s heartfelt and powerful. It’s true “soul” music for the modern generation.
After that display of excellence, the enrapturing Sharon Jones from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings set the stage for the evening’s main event. Jones dedicated her portion of the evening to the late Amy Winehouse, just announced deceased some thirty-six hours ago. Her performance of “She Ain’t a Child No More” was oddly fitting given Winehouse’s untimely demise. Jones concluded with a sterling cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).”
And if that wasn’t enough, the evening’s finale Stevie Wonder was then escorted to the stage. Only occasionally touring or performing full shows at this stage of his career, the crowd instantly rose to their feet. After inciting a you-could-hear-a-pin-drop moment of silence for those that died in Norway last week, Wonder spent the majority of his time with the band playing greats from throughout soul music’s long history (including Jesse Belvin, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson) and telling brief stories to go with each one. Following an abbreviated take on Ray Charles’ classic “What’d I Say,” the full might of Wonder’s musical skill came through on a rousing rendition of “Superstition” which had the crowd going utterly bonkers. The only problem here was that the crowd was itching for a full set of Stevie Wonder greats, but the night’s time was almost completely elapsed. The full Youth Orchestra LA was brought on stage along with the evening’s previous vocalists, and everyone together performed Marvin Gaye’s timeless “What’s Going On?” Thankfully, there was time enough for one more song from Wonder, and he was returned to his keyboards to deliver the joyful “Higher Ground.”
It was an impressive night of music celebrating the best in soul’s fine pedigree, it’s only sad that there wasn’t more time for Stevie Wonder to perform. Here’s to hoping he gets another chance to play the Hollywood Bowl sometime in the not too distant future.
All photos by Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging