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REVIEW: Steve Winwood – Back in the High Life Again (State Theatre/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

Steve Winwood at the piano.

Fifty-five years ago, Steve Winwood joined Spencer Davis and Steve’s brother Muff to form the Spencer Davis Group. Word soon spread, and established musicians from London like Eric Clapton traveled up to see this Birmingham teenager who had a voice like Ray Charles.

The Spencer Davis group went on to have hits like “I’m a Man”, “Gimme Some Lovin’”, and “Keep on Running”.  Winwood eventually left the Spencer Davis Group, going first to the band Traffic (with Jim Capaldi, David Mason, and Chris Wood), and then the band Blind Faith (with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Rich Grech). Blind Faith lasted an album and a North American tour before Winwood embarked on a powerful solo career that has continued to the present. Along the way, he has also appeared on some of the great albums of his era, including Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile, The Who’s Tommy, and James Brown’s Gravity – as well as on recordings and in concert performances by Blues legends like John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters.

A promotional image of Steve Winwood playing and singing.

Traffic and Blind Faith had a following, but they did not have the sort of popular success that Winwood achieved in the 1980s, with albums like Arc of a Diver and Back in the High Life. In response to critics who claimed that he had “sold out,” Winwood has argued that there is essentially no difference between his songs with Traffic and his 1980s hits (beyond some studio polish, at least): they all involved a mixing together of folk, Latin, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Celtic melodies, and jazz.

Winwood is currently touring in support of his Greatest Hits Live double-cd (23 songs, recorded in various locations in the U.S. and the UK). Yesterday, the tour stopped at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.  The album documents Winwood’s ongoing efforts to rethink his songs, to keep them fresh for him and his band, and the versions played last night followed fairly closely those recorded on the album.

The opening act for the concert consisted of Lilly Winwood, Steve’s daughter. Her songs, more Nashville than Birmingham, were received enthusiastically. (Her EP Silver Stage came out last spring.) She came back on stage at the end of the concert to offer back-up vocals for a few of her father’s songs.

Spencer Davis products bookended the performance by Lilly’s father: “I’m a Man” starting the evening, and “Gimme Some Lovin’” ending it. In between, Winwood covered most of his fans’ favorites, including “Can’t Find My Way Home”, “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”, “Roll With It”, “Higher Love”, and “Dear Mr. Fantasy”. There were frequent standing ovations, and a fair amount of dancing in the aisles.

Many of the other stars from Winwood’s cohort are now announcing their imminent retirement from touring – luminaries like Paul Simon, Elton John, and Aretha Franklin. Winwood, however, is still on the road. His voice is still strong, still carrying the power and emotional range of a Ray Charles in his prime.

Winwood doing what Winwood does best: making music.
Brian Bix