On guitar was none other than Jay "Bird" Koder, simply the best of the best in Portland or anywhere.
His guitar work is easily recognizable but is not so easily categorized, which is just the way he likes it. The inclusion of "Bird" alone is sufficient to call this a superior tribute.
The first number set off with the familiar rhythm that is enough to identify the song before anyone sings a single lyric. The song was Jammin' and Paul Creighton handled the lead vocals on this. Nate Watts provided that funky bass line that is so familiar. Creighton is just so adept at the Stevie Wonder material.
Saeeda Wright took the lead vocals for Sir Duke. The atmosphere onstage was one of great enjoyment and was clearly witnessed by the audience inside and the eavesdroppers on the outside with their faces pressed to the windows. Part of the fun was watching the musicians grinning at each other and pushing each other forward. But sweet Saeeda just melts you even on an up-tempo song like this.
Paul Creighton resumed lead for I Wish but surrended the lead to Liv Warfield (of Prince's band) for I Was Made to Love Her. Standing in the back was Liv's husband who, as Liv received rousing applause, shouted out "Yeah! That's my wife!" At least, I assume that was her husband. Whoever he was, he had a right to be proud. She has a precision and a power that makes your eyes water. I could listen to her forever, I think.
Livin' for the City followed and lead vocals were shared by Creighton, Warfield and Saeeda Wright. It was hot and the audience loved every second of it.
Next came the moment so many were waiting for when Saeeda shared lead vocals with Jarrod Lawson for Overjoyed. Saeeda is so very soulful and this song was made for her talents. She is astonishing. Jarrod got one of the best cheers of the night as he sang his first section. Good Lord! The things that women were screaming when he finished singing. "Mmm, MM! That's my baby, there!"
Then came a great surprise. Lee Garrett, who had co-authored Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Your's) came to the stage to lend his vocals to You Are the Sunshine of My Life but no before he traded good-natured barbs with Nate Watts. Nate gave as good as he got, too. Lee's singing was supported by Saeeda and Jarrod. Even Lee was moved by Jarrod's vocals and shouted to him "Keep singin' it, Jarrod!"
The audience roared it's approval. For many of them, they were made to stand all night as Jimmy Mak's was sold out for both shows (7.30 pm and 10.00 pm). No one seemed to mind standing for the amazing treat being offered. It should be said that Jimmy Mak's provided a good spot for the tribute to take place. The stage was large enough for the whole band and the staff of servers stayed ahead of their tables, often having to duck and swerve around dancers and crowded standing patrons. It also provides a comfortable venue for hanging around and chatting afterwards.
This was especially pleasing as Lee Garrett regaled my wife and me with stories that made his wife shake her head. He told about teaching Stevie Wonder to drive. Now, as you know, Stevie Wonder is blind. But...so...is...Lee Garrett. Despite what Jesus warned of such events, Stevie and Lee did not fall into a ditch. Lee has many others stories to tell and they are hilarious, even though I will not be able to reveal some of them. Those stories, however, deserve their own space and attention so we will return to that on another day.
Paul came after with Do I Do. He has his own unique touch and he and Jarrod do so well together. The big moment, however, was Jay "Bird" Koder's guitar solo. What a sound. Tyrone and Nate both had great reactions to his playing. And why not? It was a work of great melody and delicacy and received a thunderous cheer from the audience. A sax solo followed and then Tyrone's drum solo that nearly made the house collapse.
Through it all, however, Nate Watts' bass holds it all together. The great bassist Victor Wooten has said: "Nate is a Genius, and listening to Do I Do makes it obvious."
Lee Garrett then sang a duet with Liv Warfield for the hit he co-wrote, Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Your's). Then Lee calls on Jarrod to sing with him. It turned into an extended jam. Who am I kidding? It turned into church! But with Liv and Jarrod in harmony that is to be expected.
Then another great moment as Saeeda and Jarrod sang Ribbon in the Sky together. Jay "Bird's" sweet guitar provided a depth of soul when it didn't seem any more depth were even possible.
The blistering Higher Ground is a frontal assault against complacency and all four vocalists created an anthem for the faithful. It featured a spiritual guitar contribution from "Bird" that was hopefully not missed by the hearers.
Saeeda sang lead on Nate Watts' own composition, Free. Stevie Wonder said: “Nate Watts is someone I’ve had the privilege of knowing since 1974; he’s kind of a jokester and just an all-around good person. He’s serious about his bass playing, yet he doesn’t take it so seriously that it becomes a stumbling block. I think that’s why he and I have such a long relationship, because he’s consistent with his personality and consistent with his great musicianship." This song gives a glimpse into Nate's personality and his musicianship.
Superstition closed out the set with Paul Creighton taking lead vocals. The old saying in show biz is "Always leave them wanting more" and it was never truer than tonight. It was performed flawlessly and left the audience calling for an encore which was gratefully given.
Lee Garrett joined them for All I Do (Is Think About You) from the Hotter Than July album. Paul and Saeeda shared the lead but when the chorus came around all five vocalists joined in like a choir. It was a fitting closing because everyone knew that we would be thinking about this concert for quite some time.
Nate was gracious to the musicians for their help and told the audience "These guys came out to join in and they did it with NO REHEARSALS!"
Lee Garrett responded with "That bass player ain't so bad, either!" Nope. Not bad, at all.
That's the magic of Stevie Wonder; he brings out the best in everyone. He makes us want to be better. He deserves every tribute that is bestowed upon him. I wouldn't mind another one next month!