11/21/2012

Steve Winwood: From a Low Spark to a Higher Love

Steve Winwood, the singer, keyboardist, guitarist, and songwriter from Birmingham, England, who made his musical name as a young man in the 1960s, first as a standout member of The Spencer Davis Group, and later with Traffic and Blind Faith, offered an amiable display of assured musicianship at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, on November 14, 2012. The British rocker, who retains an appealing hint of boyishness even at sixty-four, treated his pleased (and clearly dedicated) fans to an easygoing evening of mostly low-key music, quite dependably performed, without any distraction of flash or dazzle.

Steve Winwood was in his teens when he joined The Spencer Davis Group, and it was his voice that propelled their hits, including "Keep on Running," "Gimme Some Lovin'," and "I'm a Man," in the middle of the 1960s. In 1967, He left The Spencer Davis Group and formed Traffic with Dave Mason, Chris Wood, and Jim Capaldi. Traffic went on to become one of the most singular bands of the late 1960s, with a distinctive sound that combined rock, jazz, and blues. In 1969, in between stints as the leader of Traffic, he toured and recorded with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in Blind Faith. When Traffic ceased activities in 1974, Steve Winwood struck out on his own, gaining wider fame in the late 1970s and the 1980s with "While You See a Chance," Valerie," Higher Love," "Back in the High Life Again," "The Finer Things," and other songs.

In Portland, it was evident from the beginning of the first song, "I'm a Man," that Steve Winwood's voice is amazingly unchanged from his younger days. His vocal delivery still is authentically soulful, with a hearty richness that ably expresses a complete range of meaning and feeling. His renowned ability on the organ also is as expert as ever, with his easy command of the Hammond B-3 being abundantly clear whenever his fingers touched the keyboard. "I'm a Man" was followed by "Fly" and "At Times We Do Forget," two songs from his latest album, Nine Lives, which was released in 2008. Next came "Can't Find My Way Home" (a moody song that first appeared on an album by Blind Faith), with Steve Winwood moving from organ to guitar, and "Dirty City," another song from Nine Lives.

The music proceeded with two songs from the heyday of Traffic: "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" (performed without a piano, unfortunately) and "Empty Pages." Steve Winwood then picked up a mandolin for "Back in the High Life Again," an upbeat song that provided him with a hit in 1987. He brought the main part of the performance to a close with a lengthy rendering of a third song from his days with Traffic, "Light Up or Leave Me Alone," in which each of the players was afforded a long opportunity (perhaps overly long) to show off their own musicality, and "Higher Love," another of his hits from the 1980s. After briefly leaving the stage, he returned for "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and "Gimme Some Lovin'." The spirited licks that Steve Winwood played on his Fender Stratocaster during "Dear Mr. Fantasy" supplied a bit of welcome excitement and served as one of the undoubted highlights of the evening.

The other musicians, comprising Jose Neto (guitar), Paul Booth (flute, saxophone, organ), Cafe da Silva (percussion) and Richard Bailey (drums), furnished Steve Winwood with comfortable support that was carefully executed and unquestionably skillful, but also unduly polished at times. In particular, Paul Booth's frequent use of soprano saxophone created a tone of overt slickness that threatened to impel the musical direction toward the colorless realm of smooth jazz, and while Jose Neto's guitar was brightly efficient from tune to tune, it did not have the touch of bluesy roughness that many of the songs required. The lack of a piano onstage also tended to detract from the overall quality of the performance, especially on "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys."

Notwithstanding the above comments, I can honestly report that it was an enjoyable performance of worthwhile music, with excellent sound in the hall. Steve Winwood is widely (and deservedly) celebrated as one of the foremost musicians of his time, and seeing him perform could hardly be regarded as anything other than a distinct pleasure, but taking into account the proven extent of his native talent, it did seem that he could have offered a musical experience of greater variation, along with a stronger element of general liveliness. However, in spite of any shortcomings that were detected by my own ears, most members of the audience happily responded with outpourings of unfeigned satisfaction, regularly springing to their feet and cheering the band with waves of wild approval.