On the day that his boss approached him with the idea of putting together a benefit concert, Aaron Brown was listening to Stevie Wonder – not that this was a particularly unusual circumstance. “I don’t think that a day goes by when I don’t listen to at least twenty Stevie Wonder songs,” Brown says. “I’m a huge Stevie Wonder fan.”
But on this occasion, Wonder was particularly prominent in Brown’s consciousness. He had just played last summer’s XPoNential Music Festival, during which WXPN host Robert Drake posted on Facebook that hearing Brown’s band, Aaron & The Spell, was akin to “listening to vintage 1970s Stevie Wonder.” And he soon realized that the album he happened to be spinning that day, the 1973 classic Innervisions, would be celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year.
All of those factors combined to inspire this Wednesday’s show at World Café Live, where Aaron & The Spell will perform Innervisions in its entirety to raise money for Brown’s employer, Pathways to Housing PA, a non-profit organization which helps chronically homeless individuals suffering from mental illness with finding and maintaining housing. (A second show on Thursday at NYC’s Cutting Room will do the same for the organization’s New York chapter.)
“The pieces came together in my head,” Brown recalls, “and I realized this was a way to bring all of my worlds together and try to do something good and fun.”
For Wonder, Innervisions marked a turning point, with several lyric dealing directly with social issues. “Too High” dealt with drug abuse and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” with political corruption, while “Living for the City” was the first of many songs to address race and struggles in the inner city. Those concerns made the album a particularly apt choice for Brown’s benefit show.
“That’s a really cool thing about getting deep into a record,” Brown says. “You can see his path from writing ‘Hey Love’ and ‘Uptight’ and all these love-based tunes to writing about more complex social issues.”
Brown finds himself following a similar path at the moment. Sing, the recently-released debut CD by Aaron & The Spell, is a deeply personal album, inspired by a number of changes in Brown’s personal and professional life. Those feelings are well captured by the album’s blend of blues and soul, centered around Brown’s grittily expressive voice. “I was going through some stuff,” Brown acknowledges. “It’s not like I made a conscious decision to write about it, but that’s what I do. If all else fails and nobody ever listens to me or goes to another show, I’ll still write songs until I’m 80. These just happened to be the ones that we liked and decided to put on the record.”
Now working on a follow-up, Brown has looked to Wonder’s evolution as inspiration for his own. “I don’t fashion myself as some great lyricist, but I learned from Stevie Wonder and a few other artists that you don’t have to be Bob Dylan to make a statement. You use the musical knowledge that you have to make it sound great, but it’s really important to speak from the heart, to speak what you know and what you believe.”
Brown’s work with Pathways to Housing can’t help but have an impact on his art, especially in conjunction with this increased concern for social commentary. “The people I work with are straight-up angels,” he says. “Learning about their stories and the participants’ stories has really opened my eyes and informed my work from the standpoint of lyrical content. Instead of writing about all the broken hearts I’ve ever had, I’m starting to look outwards a bit and incorporating my thoughts and feelings about what’s happening in the world around me.”
Some of Brown’s songs will also make the set on Wednesday along with his beginning-to-end rendition of Innervisions. To realize the album, Aaron & The Spell will be supplemented by a few special guests, including multi-instrumentalist Maxfield Gast and percussionist Wesley Rast. They’ll join a line-up that comprises a number of Philly’s most in-demand musicians, including Roots collaborator Jeremy Grenhart and Paper Trees’ Allison Polans.
“I’m not Stevie Wonder,” Brown says. “I can’t sing like Stevie Wonder and nobody in my band can play like Stevie Wonder, who actually plays just about all of the instruments on Innervisions. He has a certain feel to what he does, so we’re not trying to exactly do that. We’ve been playing together as a unit for almost two years now and we have our own style and our own feel for each other, so we’re going to play the songs in an Aaron & the Spell way. They wont be vastly different from the recordings, but we’re just gonna do us.”
Aaron and the Spell performs Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions at World Cafe Live on Wednesday November 20 at 8 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $17, more information can be found at the World Cafe Live website.