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There were two ironies attached to Stevie Wonder’s 40th anniversary revival of his album Songs in the Key of Life at the British Summer Time festival in Hyde Park. The first was raised by Wonder in a speech to the audience of 65,000 at the start when he spoke of his mixed feelings at the 1976 double album’s continuing significance. Songs addressing racial injustice in the US 40 years ago still resonate in the current era of Black Lives Matter, a fact that “hurts my heart”, Wonder said.
The other irony was unspoken. Over the course of a marathon set lasting almost four hours, the 66-year-old gave a tireless display of his musical gifts. He sang with undimmed vigour, overcoming the sore throat he revealed himself to be suffering, and played his piano, keyboard and harmonica with fluent vamps and inventive jamming. But those same skills have not received sustained expression in the recording studio for a long time: not since Songs in the Key of Life to be precise.
Almost 50 musicians and singers were required to help him bring this magnum opus to life. The opening summed up its scope. “Love’s in Need of Love Today” was warm and churchy, Wonder’s voice growing more impassioned as the tempo built, ending with him merging into the music with a passage of scat singing. “Have a Talk with God” translated the theme of religious worship to slinky funk. Then Wonder stood up from his keyboards to sing “Village Ghetto Land”, a hellish vision of African-American impoverishment dignified by classical violin arrangements played by a string section.
“Tell me, would you still be happy in 2016 in Village Ghetto Land?” Wonder sang pointedly at its conclusion. When he wrote the song in 1975, it was on the back of a run of albums that rank among the finest in pop’s canon (Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions). But despair at the divided state of the US and music’s capacity to change it led him to consider retiring to Ghana to work with disabled children. His record label Motown dissuaded him with a mammoth $37m deal, the first fruit of which was Songs in the Key of Life.
The album’s determination to find the best in even the most dire situation was enhanced at Hyde Park by mellow early evening sunshine; the rays that emerged from behind a passing cloud at the conclusion of “Pastime Paradise” were particularly well timed. Jaunty celebrations of African-American identity such as “Ebony Eyes”, played by Wonder with barrelhouse gusto at an upright piano, contrasted with more direct examples of political engagement, such as when the driven funk of “Black Man” ended with backing singers and horn section raising their fists in a black power salute.
“Isn’t She Lovely”, which began the second half of the set after an interval, was a taste of the sentimentality that has come to dominate Wonder’s songwriting in later decades, a catchy but sickly-sweet ode to his then-infant daughter. An enjoyable but hokey series of turns by his six backing vocalists, each ripening in the limelight with a wild burst of showy singing, hinted at the indulgence that has also blunted his music-making.
But the highlights were peerless. “Joy Inside My Tears” was the most striking, a formidable soul number about emotional salvation sung with such intense commitment by Wonder that he moved himself to tears. For all his good humour, cracking jokes in a bad Cockney accent (“Bring me a pint!”), it was impossible to ignore the personal obstacles he has had to overcome — all too evident in the way he groped for a microphone on his grand piano or was led carefully to the lip of the stage by a musician.
For a sightless man to command a concert on this scale was an extraordinary act of resilience. Moving from the Hispanic lilt of “Ngiculela — Es Una Historia” to a fierce cover of The Box Tops’ “The Letter”, Wonder reeled off bluesy riffs and solos on the harpejji, an obscure electric stringed instrument, while directing his band with hand gestures and encouraging the audience to sing along. Touch and hearing filled the absence of the sense of sight. Feel for music was paramount.
He ended with a brief tribute to Prince and a medley of hits such as “Superstition”. The new songs he promised at the start of the set did not materialise. Perhaps that should be taken as a bad sign. But in the spirit of the boundless optimism of Songs in the Key of Life, I choose to hope that his new recordings will summon the dynamism of his stage show.