At the Fringe – 9/16/16 – Aaron Staebell and Normal People do Wonder

At this year's First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival 2016, I review the first of Aaron Staebell and Normal People's performances, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Stevie Wonder's release, "Songs in the Key of Life."

At the Fringe – 9/16/16 – Aaron Staebell and Normal People do Wonder

At 7pm last night in Bernunzio’s Uptown Music, Normal People with drummer Aaron Staebell, paid tribute to Stevie Wonder’s album “Songs in the Key of Life,” which came out 40 years ago this September 28. The seven piece outfit had Staebell with Matt Curlee on keyboard (arrangements were done by Staebell and Curlee), Andrew Links on keyboard, Ben Fang on guitar, Colin Gordon on alto and soprano sax, Brandon Choi on trumpet, and Dave Kluge bass.

Before they started playing, Staebell addressed the crowd with his quirky and dry sense of humor, stating the formation of the concert, his love for wedding band music but not being in a wedding band, and that the concert would be played without breaks between the numbers.

Staebell described his arrangements – he did four of the nine numbers – as full of joy, and Curlee’s as beautiful and unique in their own way. The selections, since Stabell didn’t want to do the whole, remarking that “it would be impossible to play it in the same way as on the record, so the easiest way to play it was to change it,” and “that record had 70 to 80% of Wonder’s material.” Both arrangers did a superior job of maintaining the R&B vibe of the original record somewhere in the pieces, interweaving them in a mix of modern, avant-rock, R&B, and jazz.

Out of all the performers, Staebell, Links, and Choi impressed the most. Staebell has a unique gift of altering the placement of the beat of a tune, while maintaining the feel and groove of the tune, and his ability to use the whole kit in effective and creative ways drove the music forward. Links’ energy on the synthesizer was extremely fun to watch, and his energy was infectious, shredding on the keys and getting his bandmates to break out into smiles. Choi’s sound on the trumpet was, and effortlessly soared above the amplified instruments, both soloing and sharing the melody – whether in harmony, octaves, or unison – with the alto or soprano sax.

Staebell and Curlee’s arrangements were decidedly modern compared to the source material, but still kept the elements that made them great. Starting and ending many tunes with out-of-time solos and modern chromatic passages, they would transition into the album’s iconic melodies, often spacing out the melody in different ways, with drum solos in-between or solo material. Without breaks in between the songs, the band and arrangements followed an emotional and textural arcs that allowed the audience to follow the tunes.

The most fun pieces were their opening number “Isn’t She Lovely?” with the main melody played by Links, and the opening few notes served as a motif, “My Wish,” which was seriously cooking, the main riff on synth the main on unison horns, and finally “Sir Duke,” that had the classic horn shout section, and the main melody was fused with one of Duke Ellington’s (for whom the song is named) signature tunes.

“Loves in Need of Love Today,” “Black Man,” “Summer Soft,” “Village Ghetto Land,” “If It’s Magic,” and “Knocks Me Off My Feet” rounded out the setlist.

It was a very fun and enjoyable concert, that satisfies both the need for entertainment and intellectual stimulation. Despite the large size of the band, they filled up the space perfectly; a rockin’ sound with being too overpowering.

If you would like to see Normal People’s show this Monday, follow this link to purchase tickets:

Staebell’s website:


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