Friday, December 26, 2008

Wonderful Xmas gifts, cool software tools and Stevie Wonder

Boy, what a bewildering headline, huh?

You'll understand after I explain what I did for my wife this Christmas.

As I told you long ago, my wife is a huge Stevie Wonder fan. While kids my age growing up in New York and New Jersey during the mid 70s were all all about the gospel according to "Born to Run," teenagers like herself growing up in the Detroit area obsessed over "Songs In the Key of Life."

Since I wanted to something really special for my dearly beloved this Christmas that she couldn't get in any store, I decided to put together a Stevie Wonder video collection and burn it onto a DVD or two.

Mind you, I didn't set out trying to be a pirate by mining the internet for DVD-Rips of high-fidelity concert footage or music videos (actually, by the time, Stevie hit the music video circuit, he had already jumped the shark in my wife's eyes with pap like "I Just Called to Say I Love You.")

No, I just wanted to collect really cool stuff that, chances are, my wife has never seen.

So I hit YouTube. Big time.

A few words of warning: As you may know, the audio and video quality of YouTube videos is not the greatest. In fact, a lot of what I collected was pretty pixillated and of poor to fair audio quality. However, all I was out to do was document this wonderful artist and his work.

Also, I'm fortunate enough to own a Mac which has a hidden feature on its Safari browser that allows you to download YouTube clips onto your desktop as .flv (Flash video) files. For those who don't know about this trick, while you're on a YouTube page where a video is playing, press the A, Option and Apple keys simultaneously. That will bring up the "Activity" window detailing all that is happening on the page. Look for the .flv video that is in the middle of downloading and click on it. A new window will open (you can close it) and the video will start downloading onto your desktop.

To make the video burnable on a DVD, you have to use a video converter program. I like iSquint, a free program that converts almost anything into an Ipod compatible mp4 file. One word of warning: You have to ask Isquint to convert it to the highest video quality or you may wind up converting the .flv video into an audio-only file.

Anyway, little did I know that I opened up a Pandora's box of stuff that I never knew existed. I wound up creating three different DVDs. One DVD is almost entirely made up of a "Making of" documentary (long out of print) that celebrated the 20h anniversary of "Songs in the Key of Life" in 1996. The other DVDs had Stevie performing with the Rolling Stones; doing VH-1 Diva duets with the likes of Jewel, Queen Latifah, Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige; and teenaged Stevie performing in a Frankie and Annette movie with Don Rickles. Unbelievable.

A few observations:

•Consistently, the best stuff (as you'll see below) came from well-planned BET specials. In them, I found Stevie performing "I Got A Woman" at a Ray Charles Tribute, duetting with John Legend on "Ordinary People" and performing the wonderful but underrated "As" at an Alicia Keys tribute. These performances felt real and unforced (although I know they were carefully arranged). Contrast those to the Grammy's and VH-1 performances which were dripping with kitsch or inappropriateness – whether it was a way too-polished duet with Ray Charles on "Living for the City;" a 1985 synthesizer medley with Herbie Hancock, Howard Jones and Thomas Dolby (!); the disappointingly off-key "Mary Wants to Be a Superwoman" with Blige; or Stevie taking the stage with Scott Weiland, Tim McGraw, Bono and Norah Jones to sing "Across The Universe." Mere curiosity pieces with little musical merit.

•I had higher hopes for the "Songs in the Key of Life" documentary than what I actually saw. Most of the time, I find, these documentaries don't really answer the question I alway have: How was this stupendous piece of music really made? Often, we hear a lot of platitudes about how talented the artist is, but don't really get a sense of how this person was able to create his masterpiece. It was nice to see Stevie by the mixing board with his engineers, showing how he made certain sounds, talking about what inspired him to write some of the album's lyrics and how he struggled to get everything right. But I wanted more stories behind the songs, how outside contributors like Herbie Hancock helped and how this morphed into a double album.

•Watching all these videos, you not only get a sense of how talented Stevie is as an artist, but what an incredible musician he is. No one really pounds the keyboards quite like him. Plus, as we learn repeatedly, he was playing all the instruments himself on many of his records – the original Prince. (See below)

•One of the more fascinating clips I found was a British TV account of a press conference Wonder had earlier this year in London after the Grammy Awards. The announcer goes on to say how Stevie "had words of praise" for Amy Winehouse, but I thought Stevie was being very guarded and not particularly complimentary – as if he were trying to withhold his approval, but still wanting to be the polite guest. Tell me what you think.

Anyway, I thought I'd end this post by show you three of my favorite clips, in descending order.

3. Stevie with Gilberto Gil singing "Desafinado."
This was an unexpected delight. Stevie has dabbled in Brazilian music from time to time – most notably on "Bird of Beauty" on Fulfillingness First Finale (1974) with Portuguese lyrics from Sergio Mendes, as noted in this earlier post. But to hear him singing (well, okay, vocalizing) with Gil on one of Bossa Nova's most famous songs was pretty special. I have no idea when and where this took place, but the guy Gil is talking to at the beginning is, of course, none other than fellow Tropicalia pioneer and longtime friend Caetano Veloso.

2. Stevie jamming with Prince, India Arie and Yolanda Adams at a BET Chaka Khan tribute.
Part of one of those BET tributes I talked about earlier, this combination certainly didn't disappoint. You have Prince on guitar and Stevie on keyboards giving it their all on that killer "Ain't Nobody" riff, slipping into the sultry "Sweet Thang," then getting all nasty with "Tell Me Something Good." Masterful stuff.

1. Stevie and Grover. I saved the best for last. You want proof that "Sesame Street" will never be surpassed as the ultimate kids show on TV? Check out the clip that inspired me to go on this YouTube quest: Stevie Wonder teaching Grover how to sing during the early 70s. This is one of at least three Wonder videos related to what was apparently a kick-butt appearance on the PBS show. Performing with his full band, Stevie performs a no-holds barred "Superstition" and the "Sesame Street Song" as well. (You can find them separately on YouTube) Big Bird sure does have great taste.

By the way, my wife loved the present. Not quite the diamond necklace she deserves, but it'll do for now.

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