Arc of a Singer

Steve Winwood

Park West - Chicago

October 28, 1997

First Appeared in The Music Box, December 1997, Volume 4, #13

Written by John Metzger


It's hard to believe that it was more than three years ago when Traffic opened a series of shows for the Grateful Dead. That seems like such a long time ago since so much has happened since then. Now, Steve Winwood is back with a solo album that may be his best to date.

On October 28, he performed at Chicago's Park West for the first of three dates to promote Junction Seven. As the lights went down, the band quietly took the stage and launched into a jazzy jam that could have come straight out of an early 1970 Traffic concert. Chris Margary made his presence known right from the start with a brilliant flute solo that flavored this opening jam. Without skipping a beat, Winwood led the nine other musicians further back in time to his days with the Spencer Davis Group as the ensemble mutated the melody into a rousing rendition of I'm a Man.

Throughout the evening, Winwood explored the rhythm and blues mixture that he has been performing for years. He assembled an outstanding band for this tour, and once they found their groove, nothing was going to move them away from it. Freedom Overspill was surprisingly only the third song of the night, but it was also the best performed of Winwood's earlier solo works. This song usually doesn't stay on my radio for very long, but this version was infectious. It was a far cry from the over-produced studio version, much to my delight. The band laid down some tight, funky grooves, driven by guitarist Tim Cansfield. Imagine some of the funkiest licks Bob Weir has performed on the Grateful Dead's Feel Like a Stranger, and you will have a pretty good idea as to how Cansfield fit into the picture.

After a crowd-pleasing, but rather bland, While You See a Chance, Winwood embarked on a five-song run of new material. On many occasions, this would have lost an audience, but not tonight. The band's grooves were too tightly played and too infectious with rhythmic glee. Let Your Love Come Down was brilliantly orchestrated and was definitely one of the high points of the evening as Emma Whittle and Valerie Chambers added their voices to the percussive undertones of the song.

At times, some of the tunes carried the feel of a Santana performance. This is mostly due to conga player Kevin Ricard and drummer Walfredo Reyes, who some may remember from the 1994 Traffic tour. Throughout the evening, other members of the band also picked up percussion instruments, further expanding the rhythm section.

Can't Find My Way Home took me by surprise. I just didn't expect Winwood to perform this Blind Faith nugget, but he did it perfectly. The result was a spine-tingling rendition worthy of this classic song.

The best performance of the night was saved for the epic Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys. After the first verse, Winwood quieted the band down to a whisper and proceeded to play a quiet jazzy solo on piano. Gradually, the solo yielded to the two drummers who carried the song into an all-out Santana-style jam. But this was only the beginning. As Winwood completed the second verse, Kevin Robinson took over and tore through an exquisite jam on muted trumpet. It was a magical moment, as Robinson unleashed his own passionate expedition. With each flurry of notes, the intensity built as the other musicians laid-down a rhythmic groove under his solo. The jam completely blew out the center of the song, leaving only Scott Firth's bass pattern to maintain the connection. Gradually, Winwood drew everyone back together to conclude the song they had begun 20 minutes earlier. This was the best version I've ever heard of this song, and I don't think anyone can ever top it.

The show concluded as Winwood returned to the stage with a mandolin in hand. This could only mean Back in the High Life, which was performed in a very straight-forward manner until the end. Winwood proceeded to carry the ending of the song off on the wings of a spectacular solo. The drummers took over for a series of solos themselves, before everyone jumped back on stage for a solid Gimme Some Lovin'.

Even if you don't like Winwood's solo albums, check out his concerts. He puts on an excellent show, with much more energy and raw talent than appears on his over-produced solo albums. This show was no exception. The new material sparkled and captivated the audience. The weak points were only a few of those overplayed songs Winwood seems to feel obligated to perform (Finer Things and Higher Love).

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Copyright 1997 The Music Box