Ive struck gold. Well actually my friend and colleague Wayne Garcia struck gold and passed it along to me.
Its a full concert by Stevie Wonder easily downloadable online from Jan. 31, 1974 at the Rainbow Theatre in London, recorded after Inner Visions came out, but before Fulfillingness First Finale. Allegedly, the show was taped for official release, but scrapped, which gives this bootleg remarkably good sound quality.
The 23-year-old, in the early stages of a hot streak that made him probably the most important artist of the 70s, is backed by the three-piece rhythm section of guitarist Michael Sembello, bassist Reggie McBride and drummer Ollie Brown, along with a couple of woman background singers.
The group is intent on delving into a lot of funky jamming, and if a script for the show ever existed, its largely ignored.
Wonder and company open with a 16-and-a-half minute version of Contusion, a jazz-fusion instrumental that showed up on 1976s Songs in the Key of Life, with each musician taking extended solos (and Wonders work on Fender Rhodes showing that he was quite an accomplished improviser).
It is, even by 1974 standards, an odd way to begin a pop concert.
After the self-indulgent opener, Stevie and the band break into a lazy funk groove before finally gaining some traction with Higher Ground. The set ambles through Superwoman, Signed Sealed and Delivered, Livin for the City, Superstition, Dont You Worry bout a Thing, and other tunes, all of them performed with a fascinating off-the-cuff flavor and Stevie taking great liberties with the melodies.
Along the way, were treated to a few of Wonders performance eccentricities. In the latter half of You are the Sunshine of My Life, he slides into a swing groove and breaks out a vaudeville-esque vocal. Stevie being funny. He launches into one of his fuzzy, utopianistic speeches to set up Visions.
The boot includes a couple of rarities: To Know You is to Love You, a strutting funk song he recorded with his wife Syreeta Wright for her 1972 solo album Syreeta; he leads off Sunshine of My Life with a snippet of the beautiful ballad Perfect Angel, which Wonder wrote for the late Minnie Ripperton.
Stevie closes the show with an improvised ballad that sounds as if it were cribbed from Bill Withers, an appreciative farewell to the audience. At the end of the tune, he instructs Denise to throw them out my glasses.
No amount of editing wouldve made these tapes releasable as a live album. Nevertheless, "Rainbow Theatre 74" is loaded with strong, spirited music, and captures a legend in rare form near the height of his powers.
Gold, I tell ya, gold.