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Milwaukee Musicians Went Big—Really Big—For "Wonder Uncovered"

Apr. 17, 2017
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Milwaukee's Uncovered shows have always had a sense of scale unlike anything else in the city, each one-off performance the product of an almost inconceivable amount of planning and man hours. Even by those standards, though, Friday's Wonder Uncovered program was something else. An enormous collaboration between more than three dozen local musicians, the tribute to Stevie Wonder's 1976 magnum opus Songs in The Key of Life featured, among so much more, a brass section, violins, a string quartet, rappers, a drum circle, a balcony full of singers and that ultimate signifier of all things ambitious, a children's choir. An album as vast and eclectic as Life required the show's presenters, Radio Milwaukee's Tarik Moody and De La Buena's David Wake, to go big. They went huge.

At times the performance was, like the record it honored, almost too much of a good thing. In its first half particularly, the stage turned over so many times that it began to feel more like a talent show than a concert. That sprawl sometimes robbed the show of one of the pleasures of Uncovered's more tightly curated concerts, the experience of gradually becoming acquainted with an intimate cast of performers over the course of the evening. Here there were so many performers lined up one after another that no single artist had much of a chance to show off their range for more than a few numbers.

The upside of that crowded spotlight, though, was there was no shortage of talent to take in. Series veterans D’Amato and Mark Waldoch, both in full soul-man mode, each gave electrifying lead turns. In one of the night’s most memorable pairings D’Amato sang with his childhood music teacher Donna Woodall for a brassy, percussive and utterly kinetic rendition of “Ordinary Pain.” “Knocks Me Off My Feet” enjoyed a lovely reworking from the easygoing folk duo Nickel and Rose. The night’s biggest gambit, a radical rearrangement of “Village Ghetto Land” built around beats and a string quartet, paid off brilliantly. 

And the show couldn’t have assembled a better house band. Wake is a bravado band leader, and his band is so fluent in world rhythms that nothing seemed beyond their reach. Whenever the groove turned to anything resembling a samba, as on “Ngiculela,” which featured sensationally charismatic performances from Amanda Huff and Natty Nation’s Juan Tomas Martínez Paris, joyful dancing erupted throughout the venue. 

The show ended the same way as most of these programs do, with all of the night’s performers squeezing on stage for a celebratory final number, first for “As,” which began with a New Orleans-style jazz march through the crowd, and then with “Another Star,” an all-inclusive scorcher that built to a big disco break. It was, like so much of the evening, a high-spirited spectacle. There was no reason Wonder Uncovered's curators needed to go this big, what a joy it was to watch them pull it off.

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