With so many musical geniuses having died prematurely in recent months, you almost feel a bizarre sense of gratitude to find a bona fide pop deity like Stevie Wonder still in full effect and on top of his majestic game. Pop royalty for half a century, Wonder is the undoubted coup of this year’s British Summer Time festival in Hyde Park.
He’s playing in full Songs in the Key of Life, the 1976 double album that arguably represented the high water mark of his creative purple patch. Forty years on, it remains an audacious, spiritual, politicised pop-soul masterclass: both Prince and Elton John declared it to be the greatest album ever made.
His support bill here is more fitful. Corinne Bailey Rae was hailed as the future of neo-soul when she emerged 10 years ago, but her soft-edged arrangements hint that she is more of a 21st-century Sade. Better is Jamie Woon, whose D’Angelo-like R&B is haunting and spectral even in blazing afternoon sunshine.
Pharrell Williams is a slight, anonymous figure whose set is both undeniably funky and oddly prim and proper. As a lover man he is totally asexual, yet his set-closing endorphin release of Blurred Lines, Get Lucky and Happy confirms we are in the presence of a rare pop alchemist.
Led on to the stage to mass adulation, Wonder displays a maverick take on America’s latest wave of racial tensions. “I say Black Lives Matter because we are the original people of the world,” he offers. “Everyone has some black in them, some soul! Stop denying your culture!”
His music is decidedly more sure-footed. Wonder remains a stupendous live performer, a rich, emotive vocalist who still inhabits these 40-year-old songs as if mesmerised by every note. He delivers Village Ghetto Land’s pensive musing on urban poverty, with beggars eating “from garbage cans”, as if from a pulpit: “Still in 2016!” he interjects.
He has a gravitas that is born not just of longevity and status but sheer intensity. Sir Duke and I Wish remain outrageous exercises in lubricious funk, Wonder bobbing his head from side to side, yet even more stunning is Ordinary Pain’s sharp and soulful dissection of the agony of heartbreak.
Yet while Wonder is a great ideas man, he badly needs an editor. Too many songs in a mammoth four-hour set dissolve into seemingly interminable jazzy noodling, while Isn’t She Lovely hints at the saccharine sentimentality that was to stain the second half of his career. Each backing singer gets to do their party piece, with the schmaltzy nadir seeing Wonder playing God Save the Queen on a harmonica.
Yet he retains one of the greatest song oeuvres in modern pop, and is able to roar back effortlessly with a devastatingly funky encore medley including Signed, Sealed, Delivered and a magisterial closing Superstition. It’s a thrilling last reminder that, when he puts his mind to it, Stevie Wonder is still nigh on untouchable.
This article was written by Ian Gittins, for theguardian.com on Monday 11th July 2016 11.16 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010