Higher Ground: A Charlestonian Tribute to Stevie Wonder

A striking set of keyboards, synthesizers, percussion instruments, a trio of brass instruments, and a few wind chimes for good measure welcomed my roommate and I as we entered the Charleston Music Hall. Set in front of a beautiful black curtain that looked like pure starlight shining through, I knew we were in for a fun night.

Charlton Singleton and Quiana Parler and Friends are not new to the tribute scene, having done a Prince tribute, a Frank Sinatra tribute, and another Stevie Wonder tribute previously. This particular event was held as a part of the MOJA Arts Festival, which is a “celebration of African-American and Caribbean arts” held between September 28 and October 8. The concert was an interesting mix of different ages, cultures, and ethnicities, probably thanks to the MOJA festival.

The huge ensemble of Higher Ground, a tribute group to the music of Stevie Wonder, casually came to the stage without much to-do, but Quiana Parler had a magnetic star quality that made you want to dance along with her in her sparkly disco pants and matching shoes. If she were the only vocalist on stage, I wouldn’t have known any different.

The group was dressed cohesively, without being too matchy-matchy, in a nice mix of professional dress and fun pieces. Some groups end up looking stuffy for the sake of trying to look legitimate or important, so it was refreshing to see a group not take themselves too seriously.

The sixth song of the night, “All I Do,” showed off Parler’s strong vocal capabilities as well as her ability to draw in the audience. She knows how to work an audience, leaving Charlton Singleton and Aaron Hines, her two counterparts, in the dust.

Singleton, admittedly the weakest vocalist in the group, did have a shining moment in his rendition of the classic, “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which he sweetly introduced by saying he auditioned for a middle school musical with it. I chalked up his performance to years of practice. Being a virtuoso trumpet player first and foremost, Higher Ground simply didn’t capitalize on Singleton’s greatest strengths in this regard. The lighting for this piece was the best of the night with red and a few stripes of white rather than the rainbow spitfire in other songs in order to set the “funk” tone (which is rather unnecessary, considering the show is a Stevie Wonder tribute), but ended up just blinding the audience.

The keyboardist and backup singer both got a chance to shine as the lead vocalists took a break, and it was honestly the most memorable moment of the night. The keyboardist, Mike Brown, soulfully belted “You and I” with an impressive vibrato that earned him more cheers than either Singleton or Hines. The backup singer was accompanied only by Brown in a rendition of “If It’s Magic” that was set with beautiful cool colored lights. Her style was much more measured and level than Parler, but lacked Parler’s confidence and charisma. At the end the unnamed backup vocalist received a well-deserved standing ovation and wiped tears away.

Overall, the mix of very well-known to little known songs was interesting. There were some Stevie Wonder classics that seemed distinctly missing from the set, like “My Cherie Amour” and “Isn’t She Lovely” in favor for more underground (if you could call any Stevie Wonder song underground) songs like, “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” It is hard to pick a set that will please everyone with such a legend, so I applaud Higher Ground for their attempts, but the set seemed to drag on longer than needed with twenty songs plus an encore, many blending into the next.

If you’re looking for plain fun, this group knows what they’re doing and doesn’t take themselves too seriously. This was a fun night out for a non-devotee with baseline knowledge of Stevie Wonder, and I am curious to see what this group comes up with next. At the end of the day, it’s a tribute show, not a symphony, and should be taken at face value.

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