Songs from the Lineup dissects tracks that bands are likely to perform when they appear at the Life Is Beautiful music and arts festival this September. Check out previous Songs from the Lineup here.
I have no idea which songs Stevie Wonder intends to perform at Life Is Beautiful. I thought that maybe I could puzzle out a set list by looking at his recent shows on Setlist.fm, but they’re kind of scattershot in nature; Wonder is still in the midst of his Songs In the Key Of Life anniversary tour, and when he’s not playing that groundbreaking album from start to to finish, he apparently plays whatever the hell he wants. Key Of Life tracks “Another Star” and “Village Ghetto Land” make frequent appearances—makes sense; he’s rehearsed them plenty with his band—but if you look at other concert appearances from this summer, all kinds of big hits, deep cuts and fazed cookies manifest themselves. Wanna hear “Higher Ground?” “Send One Your Love?” A cover of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel?” He’s played all of those, and more, during this long, hot Wonder-summer.
So instead of guessing at what he might play, let’s talk about what I’d like for him to play. I wouldn’t mind hearing all ths songs you’re probably pumped for—”Superstition,” “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” etc. It might be fun to hear some of his bouncy later-period stuff, like “Jungle Fever” and “So What The Fuss.” And I’d positively lose my shit if he took the stage and played “Earth’s Creation,” the legitimately terrifying opening cut from 1979’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants.” Seriously: I want you to stop reading this right now, put on some headphones, and click on that link prepared to wet yourself in fear or rapture.
The song I’d really like to hear, though, is “That Girl,” one of four original songs Wonder recorded for his 1982 greatest hits compilation Original Musiquarium I. (The other three songs were “Do I Do,” “Front Line” and “Ribbon in The Sky.”) In the context of Wonder’s work at that time “That Girl,” seemed like the kind of trick Wonder could do with his left hand; it’s not the showiest of Wonder’s hits, nor the most poignant of his ballads. In fact, it was originally a b-side to Hotter Than July’s “All I Do” only a year prior. (Wouldn’t it be amazing if Wonder did “All I Do?” I can’t even.)
But there’s just something about “That Girl” that absolutely wrecks me. Listen to that beat: it’s so clean, so sharp. Listen to the spareness of the instrumentation; it ducks beneath the vocal almost as if it were shy. And listen to the lyrics, which would be kind of silly if it weren’t for the yearning Wonder invests in them: She says her love has been crying out/but her lover hasn’t heard/But what she doesn’t realize is that I’ve listened to every word.
If you listen closely to these things then you’ll understand—perhaps even by the time the first chorus finally arrives, a luxuriant one minute and thirty-five seconds into the track—why I think “That Girl” has a place among Wonder’s best songs. Unlike “Higher Ground” or “Isn’t She Lovely,” “That Girl” saunters into genius, as naturally as you please. Sure, it’s a b-side, but it’s a b-side from a man who wrote a pretty much uninterrupted string of top 10 hits that spanned nearly two decades. “That Girl” is easygoing, but supremely confident. It’s the flower that grows, unbeckoned but not unwelcome, through a crack in a sidewalk that runs alongside the flowerbed.
Will Stevie Wonder play “That Girl” at Life Is Beautiful 2015? Maybe. Probably not. But the beauty of a song that’s so perfectly made, so utterly of its moment, is that it sounds like it’s being performed for the first time every time you listen to it. There are only a handful of songs like that—songs that almost can’t be remade, even by the artist who made it in the first place. The abundant sunshine of Wonder’s life’s work was shining down, and “That Girl” simply grew from it.
Stevie Wonder is one of the many acts performing at Life Is Beautiful in downtown Las Vegas. For tickets to the September 2015 music and arts festival, go here.