Steve Winwood has had several different careers over the course of nearly 50 years in the music business. He was the boyish blues belter who became a star with the Spencer Davis Group. He was the serious-minded jazz-rocker who fronted Traffic. He launched one of the first rock supergroups, Blind Faith, with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. He was an early-Eighties synth-rocker, and then he became the soul man of choice for the yuppie generation at the end of that decade.
The breadth of Winwood’s career is too vast to cover in the space of a single concert, so perhaps it was understandable that the 64-year-old rock legend focused on just a few of his musical guises on Friday at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater, where he launched his latest U.S. tour.
Winwood is four years removed from his most recent LP, 2008’s Nine Lives, but he still played a generous portion of the record, leading his four-piece band through low key numbers like “Fly” and “At Times We Do Forget,” which split the difference between yacht rock and instrumentally expansive jams that hearkened back to Winwood’s Traffic and Blind Faith days. “Dirty City” proved to be a highlight, with Winwood stepping out from behind his usual keyboards to indulge in an extended guitar workout.
Otherwise, Winwood stuck mostly to his 1960s material, starting the show with a casually funky “I’m A Man” and ending with his other Spencer Davis-era favorite, “Gimme Some Lovin’.” Winwood was in remarkably fine voice, leaning into the first songs that made him famous with the same invigorating, Ray Charles-inspired yelp he had when he was still in his teens. On “Can’t Find My Way Home,” his vocals soared, fully conveying the vulnerability of the original even after giving the song a newly electric, lightly syncopated arrangement.
Winwood remains an unassuming frontman, saying little to the audience beyond a simple “very nice to see you again,” and frequently surrendering the spotlight to his backing musicians. Guitarist José Neto and multi-instrumentalist Paul Booth were among the standouts in Winwood’s band, tearing off multiple solos on songs like “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone” and the Traffic medley of “The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys” and “Empty Pages.”
Sometimes all of the instrumental fireworks were a little much. Neto’s playing was tasteful and stinging, and Booth colored the songs with fluid saxophone and flute licks. But after long-winded bongo and drum solos during “Light Up,” the concert threatened to turn into a jam-band free-for-all. The night could have used a dose of Winwood’s pop-oriented side: from his Eighties-era output, only the hit “Higher Love” made the set list, and even that was given a mellow rock-band makeover. Yes, Winwood’s designer-suit-and-fluffy-mullet period is cheesy, but it’s also catchy, and a little more of it would have enlivened a solo-heavy evening.
“I’m A Man”
“At Times We Do Forget”
“Can’t Find My Way Home”
“The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys”/”Empty Pages”
“Light Up Or Leave Me Alone”
“Dear Mr. Fantasy”
“Gimme Some Lovin'”