Stevie Wonder has released just enough iconic pap and treacle in his hit-studded 50-year career to make for a viable Tributon, Market Market’s ritualized, multi-performer concerts devoted to the work of a single band or musician: a tribute, a roast, both. But for “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and a few other isolated instances of good-natured pandering, Stevie poses a rigorous challenge, the toughest Tributon cover that Market Market has called to date. Honestly, you might as well call J. S. Bach or Edgar Varèse, except for that whole attendance thing.
The proprietors of Rosendale’s affectionately abbreviated Mkt2 are guarded about how they choose their Tributon subjects. Requests and subtle suggestions are programmatically ignored. But through four years and nearly 30 uproarious events, a couple of patterns emerge. First, the act must be iconic, though cult icons are welcome. Madonna counts, but so does Guided by Voices. Fleetwood Mac was an obvious choice, but so was Ween. The number of heads in attendance doesn’t vary much based on the relative fame of the subject, but the type of head does. The Beatles drew a cross-section of the Great Everybody; Ween drew…you know, those Ween people.
Second, the act must be or have been prolific and consistent enough to provide a surplus of pickings: enough familiar songs for as many as 12 or 13 performers to do one, two or three each. These need not be Billboard-grade hits, but at least fanbase favorites. (And this, I can only assume, is why we have yet to see a Big Star Tributon). But is degree of difficulty ever considered as a deterrent? The choice of Stevie Wonder suggests that perhaps it is not. In this lone case, degree of difficulty may even have been a perverse incentive, a stimulus. Mkt2 is calling on us to up our game.
The stunt-plane, freehand melisma of Stevie’s singing is not mere ornament that can be overlooked or rectified; no, his marginal squiggles are the lines. Remove the tough parts and there are often no parts left. But humans do not want for imitative vocal talent, so this is the least of our worries. Wonder’s songs are keyboardcentric and multi-keyboard. Not merely the arrangements, but the compositions themselves, consist in the tricky, arpeggiated interplay and complex sonorities of Clavinet, electric piano and monosynth, and in that jazzified psychedelic-soul harmonic language that Stevie invented. Top-tier keyboard-players are rare if Ross Rice is already booked (which he is), and few rock and folk guitarists, even the working ones, have all those jazzy inversions and sharp elevens comfortably at their fingertips. Oh, you can suss out “Golden Lady” with cowboy chords and bad tablature, but don’t expect to catch its golden essence that way.
Then again, your Stevie or my Stevie? There is plenty of manageable material to be found in the bookends, in his Motown prodigy period and his leisurely pantheon days of the ‘80s to the present. The problems, and the sheer brilliance, begin when he starts writing and producing for himself on 1971’s Where I’m Coming From: an excellent album that would be more appreciated on its own terms, were it not the warning shot in advance of one of the great runs of creativity in the history of popular music. You can hear Stevie’s vision assembling itself on this set. No Moog bass yet (James Jamerson, luckily!). But, inspired by the concurrent developments of multi-track recording and confessional singer/songwriting, a 20-year-old pop star began taking himself seriously as an artist – always a dangerous place for a pop star, but in this case the payoff was immediate.
‘72s Music of My Mind was prelude, part two, a commercial dud of astonishing quality, and then it’s on. His next four releases are the stuff of pure, self-invented genius: the universally revered Talking Book and Innervisions (my favorites if I had to pick two), the underappreciated Fulfillingness’ First Finale and then the backend pivotal album, 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life, in which a fully realized artist heads home toward the Land of the Pop Star from whence he came. That six-year, six-album run is My Stevie. Interpreter beware.
Stevie Wonder Tributon, Saturday, November 2, 10 p.m., free, Market Market Café, 1 Madeline Lane (right off route 32), Rosendale; (845) 658-3164, www.marketmarketcafe.com.