Steve Winwood's music career has spanned nearly 50 years and has explored the nexus at which blues, R&B, funk, pop, jazz-fusion and psychedelic rock meet. He's been playing jam-band music since long before the term was invented.
The 64-year-old British singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and onetime wunderkind played a jaw-droppingly good concert this past Sunday night, where he was the headliner at the Chasing Rainbows fundraising gala. The house was packed with well-attired VIPs, politicians, arts supporters, potential donors and longtime rock fans for the almost-two-hour show.
In a pleasant surprise, Winwood showed up with a terrific four-piece backing band—guitarist, reedman, drummer and percussionist—rather than performing a solo show, as was previously announced. No bassist was present, because the über-talented Winwood handled the bottom by playing bass pedals on the Hammond B3 organ. His famous reedy tenor sounded great, and remains one of the most soulful voices in rock.
Winwood's career has seen too many hits and highlights to cram them all into one concert, but he touched on songs from throughout. He opened and closed the well-oiled set with tunes from his teenage years with the Spencer Davis Group ("I'm a Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin'") and played a few of his '80s pop hits ("Higher Love," "Back in the High Life Again").
Drawing perhaps the most-passionate responses were songs from Winwood's years with classic rock bands Blind Faith and Traffic, such as the melancholic beauty of "Can't Find My Way Home," and the progressive jamming of "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" and "Dear Mr. Fantasy." Speaking of jams, more than 20 minutes of "Light Up or Leave Me Alone" might have seemed indulgent to some, but it allowed Winwood to give the spotlight to his sidemen. Most impressive were guitarist José Neto and saxophonist Paul Booth, channeling Jeff Beck and Joe Henderson, respectively.
Winwood also included tunes from his most-recent studio album, 2008's Nine Lives. His distorted, bluesy guitar leads on "Dirty City" made up for the absence of pal Eric Clapton, who played on the original cut. And even a smooth-jazz tune such as "Fly" sounded edgy and vital when Winwood and company hit that funky sweet spot.