Steve Winwood: Roll With It

 

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Steve Winwood brought his fifty-five year career to Kansas City for his “Greatest Hits Live” tour. Winwood tours consistently, and his last stop here was as a supporting act. This time he filled the 2,400 seat Uptown Theatre with an enthusiastic crowd waiting to enjoy a trip through his lengthy catalog of music.

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The Uptown is an intimate venue with a small stage, so it feels like you are up close and person with the performers. A friend and I had seen Robin Trower in this setting a year ago and remarked how we had seen U2 here about 35 years ago. Last summer U2 played the local professional football stadium. How time flies.

Winwood, like many other musicians from the “classic period” of rock, only occasionally releases new music. His recent CD release was a greatest hits live collection. I guess there isn’t much demand for new songs.

Winwood is one of the most respected names in music. Having started with the Spencer Davis Group as a teenager, he went on to form Traffic with Dave Mason, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood in 1967. Traffic was an eclectic group, mixing folk, pop, psychedelic rock, with a touch of blues and some jazz stylings thrown in for good measure. Traffic broke up so that Winwood could form Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Rick Greech. One album and a short tour later, this group imploded, and Traffic reformed for the first half of the 1970s.

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Winwood has spent the past 40-plus years as a solo artist, with a side journey in 1994 to re-team with Capaldi for a brief Traffic stop. In 2009, he toured with Eric Clapton and recorded a CD/DVD from the Madison Square Garden stop. If you get a chance, checkout that concert. Too bad these two guys haven’t done more work together.

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The first decade of Winwood’s solo career was a mixed bag as it took him awhile to find his sound in a changing musical world. By 1985, he scored several monster radio hits and his videos were popular on MTV. “Higher Love” scored a Best Record Grammy and “Back in the High Life” climbed to number 13 on the charts. He followed that with the album Roll With It, which was also the title song. That album proved as popular as Back in the High Life. Interesting, after Traffic, Winwood moved to playing the synthesizer instead of the organ. His 1970s and 1980s work is dominated by the synthesizer; the instrument of choice during that era. In concert, he’s back on the organ.

His reformation of Traffic with Jim Capaldi in 1994 seemed more like a Winwood solo effort since only Capaldi was involved, and Winwood played most of the instruments on the album. Sadly, both Capaldi and Wood are no longer living from the original Traffic lineup. Traffic_Virgin

Winwood continued to tour and release several more solo albums but he failed to impact the charts. His last solo album to date, Nine Lives (2008) had a very Traffic-like vibe.

In picking which songs to play in concert, there are obvious picks, but there wasn’t room for all of the hits. He visited the Spencer Davis period with “I’m a Man,” and “Gimme Some Lovin’.” Blind Faith’s period featured “Had to Cry Today” and “Can’t Find My Way Home.” Traffic was represented with “John Barleycorn”, “Dear Mr. Fantasy”, “Empty Pages”, Pearly Queen”, and “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” His solo period also include “Domingo Morning” from his 2003 album About Time. “Back in the High Life”’ “Talking Back to the Night”. “While You See a Chance”, “Glad” and “Freedom Rider” were songs that didn’t make the setlist. No big complaint.

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Winwood’s concerts aren’t faithful note-by-note renditions of his songs. He allows them to open up with lengthy versions and showcases his band. Winwood moved from the organ to the guitar and back again. He is a talented musician who puts life into songs he’s played a thousand times before. The band played without a bass player, so he either provided the low end himself or had it furnished by recording. No matter. Winwood isn’t a chatty guy onstage, he doesn’t tell stories or provide lengthy commentary. The music speaks for itself.

The evening started with his daughter Lilly warming up the audience with a solo set, just her and a guitar. She later joined him to sing backup on several of his songs including “John Barleycorn.” Her music deserves a good listen; she has a country voice with an English accent.

At age 69, Winwood shows no sign of slowing down. His voice is in fine shape and he plays with the enthusiasm of a man half that age. Since he tours regularly, there should be ample opportunity to see him in the future. Do it. I only hope that Winwood and former Traffic bandmate Dave Mason are able to mend their longstanding riff and reunite to play together. I wouldn’t hold my breath but we can hope.

 


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