Stevie Wonder has closed London’s BST festival with a meaningful but meandering stroll through his landmark double album, Songs In The Key Of Life.
The 66-year-old played for almost four hours, backed by a razor-sharp band of more than 20 musicians.
Addressing recent outbreaks of violence, Wonder said he wanted music to bring people together “in this horrible time we’re living in.
“Choose love over hate… kindness over meanness, hope over no hope at all.”
The soul legend said it “breaks my heart” that songs like Love’s In Need Of Love Today and Village Ghetto Land remained relevant, “almost 40 years” after he wrote them.
The tracks, which both appear on the first volume of Songs In The Key Of Life, tackle topics including racial hatred, police corruption and political inertia.
“I’m not happy that those conditions still exist in the world,” Wonder told the 65,000-strong crowd in Hyde Park.
The sentiment was woven into the fabric of the show: Pastime Paradise gained the gospel refrain, “we shall overcome”; while Wonder added a raw, powerful cover of Curtis Mayfield’s peace anthem People Get Ready to his set.
“Tell all the leaders of the world to cut the bull… and fix it,” he implored the audience.
“We were all made in God’s image. When you hate someone, you’re hating that image.
“If I’m blind and I can see it, you can see it too.”
His comments were applauded by an audience that included stars Julianne Moore, Bradley Cooper, Natalie Portman and Martin Freeman, supermodel Naomi Campbell and musicians Jarvis Cocker and Emeli Sande.
Released in 1976, Songs In The Key Of Life is regarded as Wonder’s most accomplished album. An attempt to capture the nuance of existence – from the birth of his daughter to the politics of fear – it topped the US charts for 14 weeks and earned a Grammy for Album of the Year.
In a 1995 interview with Q Magazine, Wonder called it the record “I’m most happy about”. But it is also a complex, sprawling experience. It comprises 21 tracks that originally filled two albums and a four-song EP. Many of those songs last almost 10 minutes and, on stage, Wonder extended them further.
A festival was probably the wrong setting for such an ambitious show. Some of the album’s deeper cuts left casual fans bewildered; and an interlude in which each of Wonder’s six backing vocalists was given a solo number dragged on for far too long.
“I just want Stevie,” shouted one audience member in frustration.
But when the star rolled out hits like I Wish and Isn’t She Lovely, the crowd sang and danced as one. Sir Duke even prompted fans to parp along with the brass section, before launching into the uplifting hook: “You can feel it all over”
Wonder was in superb voice throughout, recreating all the album’s high notes, and even inventing a few new ones along the way. But he took no credit for his octave-scaling performance, confessing: “Earlier today I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to sing nothing – “but then I prayed on it.”
In fact, it was Wonder’s warmth and humour (including a passable attempt at a Cockney accent) that stopped the show feeling indulgent or bloated.
On several occasions he suddenly declared, “I’ve had an idea”, and led his band down a funky, improvised side alley, giving the highly-rehearsed set a sense of freedom and unpredictability.
The Songs In The Key Of Life set wrapped up with the joyous, Latin-funk excursion Another Star (prompting spontaneous conga lines around Hyde Park) but Wonder still had time left before the curfew.
Calling himself “DJ Tick Tick Boom” the star played recordings of Kiss and When Doves Cry, in tribute to his friend, and musical protégé, Prince.
But he returned to his own material for the closing number – a medley of Part Time Lover; Signed, Sealed, Delivered; and Superstition.
“I love you,” Wonder said as he left the stage. “Maybe next year, we’ll do it again. Are you with me on that?”
The crowd seemed to agree.