sat 19/10/2019

Stevie Wonder, Hyde Park BST Festival | reviews, news & interviews

Stevie Wonder, Hyde Park BST Festival

Stevie Wonder, Hyde Park BST Festival

Masterful four-hour show from a genius of popular music

Nobody does it better: Stevie Wonder

Sixty-five thousand people came to Wonder. The final night of British Summer Time in Hyde Park was a sell-out. With a performance lasting four hours including an intermission, the Detroit-born legend and his band – and also the weather, which stayed fine all evening - can have left nobody disappointed. The show, based on the album Songs in the Key of Life, with some extra off-piste excursions, was thoroughly convincing live. It just works very well, and on several levels. 

First there's the sheer quality and compositional versatility of the original album. The appeal of just about all of these songs is undimmed after nearly 40 years. Wonder’s mastery of the languages of soul, R&B and funk while still in his mid-twenties, and the combining of them into a recognizable and personal idiom, is one of the miracles of music. 

Wonder started cycling a four-bar figure for the simple joy of it

Then there is thought and dramaturgy in the set construction. The audience was first settled into the laid-back devotional grooves of “Love Is in Need of Love Today” and “Have a Talk with God”, while revealing the backing singers as a cohesive, well-drilled unit. Then, element by element, the rest of a remarkable band of 30-plus musicians and their sound-colours were revealed. “Village Ghetto Land” introduced the string section with their insistently shrill countermelodies. Then “Contusion” gave the first hint of the electric keyboard and synth sounds. The six-piece horn section was held back, until being unleashed to wonderful effect in "Sir Duke,” the crowd coaxed into en masse arm-waving windscreen wiper effects.  


“Contusion” also gave the audience its first real contact with the band’s incredibly powerful rhythm engine. The two drum-kit specialists  Stanley Randolph (pictured below) and Christopher Bounds, with percussionists Munyungo Jackson and Fausto Cuevas III, are at the heart of this band, and the variety of ways in which they can propel it into life are a constant delight. From the insistent backbeat of “Ebony Eyes” to the full-on funk explosion of “Black Man” to rocking out in “All Day Sucker”, this quartet delivered a non-stop masterclass. 

And then, of course, there was the maestro himself. What takes the breath away is Stevie Wonder's unjaded, ever-positive, always-enthusiastic way of being, and his evident and innocent delight in welcoming the unexpected. He teased the London audience with a mockney Dick Van Dyke accent. He introduced the encores by taking on the alter ego of "DJ Tick Tick Boom". He turned “Easy Going Evening” into an instrumental version of “God Save the Queen”, and even proposed the surreal musical conundrum of how our lugubrious national anthem has survived for centuries without being equipped with a properly wacky multi-instrumental cadenza. 

Wonder extended “Knocks Me Off My Feet” with all kinds of fascinating episodes, vocalisings, harmonica solos, and even an extended paean to the value of music education. After “Ngiculela” he sat down at a clavinet, and started just cycling a four-bar figure for the simple joy of it, implicitly inviting the musicians around him to jam on  it.  

Each of the backing vocalists was revealed in solo glory in the second half, the most elementally powerful of them being Latrelle “Mz Munchie” Simmons, whose version of Etta James's “At Last” will have rattled tea-cups in saucers in Bayswater and beyond. Wonder was giving his voice a rest, but stayed on stage in the role of piano or keyboard accompanist to each of them in turn. It was one more reminder of the sheer energy, conviction and dare one say genius which Stevie Wonder brought to this uniquely life-affirming show.

What takes the breath away is Stevie Wonder's unjaded, ever-positive, always-enthusiastic way of being

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Comments

Yep, couldn't agree more. As musical legends get older, the excitement of seeing them live is coupled with a slight anxiety of 'what if they're not up to it anymore'?. Stevie's still kicking it. If you'd played me an audio recording of that gig, I could have placed it anywhere in the last 30 years. I generally don't do 4hr gigs (certainly not standing up) but it was a pleasure. He kept the album tracks very close to the originals, which was great..  the original harmonica solo licks on Isn't She Lovely  always make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Contusion was a highlight and Sir Duke, just for 60,000 singalong value. A privilege to be there. 

Given the recent fate of so many of our musical icons, I hope his team now pop him in a chamber of oxygen and cotton wool... We need Stevie in our lives for much longer...

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