Among the packed, excited crowd of 300 at one of London’s most famous musical landmarks, a sense of Wonder was tangible. The Motown legend was about to perform a one-off concert for national adult contemporary broadcaster BBC Radio 2, open only to contest winners, media and label staff. This ticket was so hot, it was almost untouchable, for what was surely one of the most intimate shows Wonder had ever played.
Yet for all the feverish anticipation, a whiff of uncertainty hung in the air, not least because of his famously approximate sense of punctuality (“Stevie time,” as we disciples have come to know it). After all, 10 years passed between the artist’s 1995 album “Conversation Peace” and the brand new “A Time 2 Love.” Would he do justice to his awe-inspiring catalog, or merely nod toward the classics, distracted by promotional duties for the new project?
More than two-and-a-half hours later, we were leaving the room having to resize our wildest dreams. This was a show of epic proportions, from the moment Wonder and his band opened with a tinglingly prescient “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” to the elongated “As” that finally closed the proceedings. In between, the on-stage electricity suffered barely a minor outage.
Indeed, it was over an hour before Wonder even played anything from the new album, nor did he touch on anything from his 1960s repertoire at all, although he teased us by picking up his harmonica and referring to “Fingertips” at one point. The show was heavily weighted toward his incredible output of the 1970s, in a dream selection of hits and album tracks, almost all of them performed with an unbeatable combination of relaxed expressiveness and remarkably disciplined observation of the recorded versions. The net result was a vivid reminder of Wonder’s ineffable genius.
It was a joy to hear Wonder in such apparently effortless harmony with an outstanding band, which kicked into “Masterblaster (Jammin’)” with unified determination. Then, another frisson as Stevie leaned forward to pick out the jabbing organ of “Higher Ground.”
Perhaps the most poignant moment came as Wonder, alone now at the keyboard, played “Golden Lady” and “Superwoman” before preparing for the beautiful ballad “You and I” by explaining how hard it was for him to play the song. He remembered the first time he had sung it to his former wife Syreeta Wright, who died of cancer in the summer of last year. The memory brought him very close to tears, and made the performance deeply touching.
A happier family connection occurred when Wonder introduced his daughter Aisha Morris and they stood shoulder to shoulder to perform “Positivity,” their duet from the new album and its new single in the U.K. Father and daughter horsed around gleefully, and in the same spontaneous spirit Stevie then peeled off “Isn’t She Lovely,” the hit on which Morris featured as a toddler at her bath time. “Isn’t he lovely?” she sang in response.
Wonder returned to the new album for “My Love Is on Fire,” which he said he had always wanted Luther Vandross to sing, and gave us such ballad treats as “Joy Inside My Tears” and “Ribbon in the Sky.” A blinding upbeat segment featured “All I Do,” “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” before he welcomed Motown president Sylvia Rhone on stage. Then Wonder playfully took the microphone from her, when Rhone’s eulogy about the star was showing no signs of self-editing.
Wonder also acknowledged the part played in his recording career by the surroundings, reprising two songs recorded at Abbey Road, “Tuesday Heartbreak” and “Maybe Your Baby.” A dangerously funky “Superstition” and “You Haven’t Done Nothing” preceded another emotional reference to Syreeta, before the new ballad “Shelter in the Rain.” The closing “As” was even longer than the recorded version, with solos for every band member.
The key of life had been well and truly struck, on a night that is already a golden memory. Radio 2 will broadcast a 90-minute edit of the concert Dec. 10 and will air a further 60 minutes in January.