The Beacon Theatre
New York City
April 21, 2017
Review by David Chiu
It was 50 years ago that the Spencer Davis Group scored two major pop hits in “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man,” songs that defined the spirit and the mood of the 1960s. More importantly, the British Invasion group introduced to the world its fresh-faced singer and wunderkind Steve Winwood, who went onto a hugely successful artistic and commercial music career with Traffic and Blind Faith and as a solo artist. His distinctive Ray Charles-like vocals, keyboard playing, and a diverse repertoire of songs that incorporated a range of styles (soul, pop, progressive rock, funk, world music, Latin and jazz) stamped his ticket to stardom.
Those sounds and Winwood’s talents were on full display last night at the Beacon Theatre where he and his superb band performed what was essentially an overview of his five-decades career spanning rock’s evolution. It was a continued return to his roots since his 2003 artistic comeback album About Time, following the pop-oriented successes of the ’80s and ’90s. Thus, if you went to the Beacon show expecting to hear “Roll With It,” “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do,” “While You See a Chance,” and “Valerie,” then you were in for a letdown since he didn’t perform those.
Rather, Winwood went really deep into the back catalog, launching the sold-out show with a slightly re-worked version of “Back in the High Life Again,” followed by songs during his time Spencer Davis Group (“I’m a Man”), Blind Faith (“Had to Cry Today,” “Can’t Find My Way Home”), and Traffic (“Pearly Queen, “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” “Empty Pages”); early in the set, he also threw in a Buddy Miles cover “Them Changes.” The only other ’80s song that Winwood and the band played was, of course, his smash hit “Higher Love”—a spirited, almost-stripped down version accompanied by his daughter Lilly on backing vocals. The encore concluded the evening on a blistering and exuberant note: first with the turgid rendition of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and the barnstorming soul shouter “Gimme Some Lovin.’”
The highlight of the show was Winwood’s extended jam on “Light Up or Leave Me Alone,”a track from the 1971 Traffic album The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, originally sung by drummer and lyricist Jim Capaldi—one could say it was Winwood’s fitting tribute to his late bandmate. The performance of that song was a showcase for the other musicians in his touring band – guitarist José Pires de Almeida Neto; drummer Richard Bailey; percussionist Edson “Cafe” Da Silva; and woodwinds/keyboards player Paul Booth – to shine in the spotlight with their instrumental prowess and they more than delivered.
To put it understatedly, Winwood was not bad himself behind his trademark Hammond B-3 organ playing (indicated by his solo turns, like on Empty Pages), but also on lead guitar—which for younger folks who were previously introduced to him during the Back in the High Life–Roll With It period, might have been a surprise to see him with an axe. Regardless of the changes over time, the one fact that remains is his ageless soulful vocals, which didn’t sound weathered.
The performance was a dutiful trip through memory lane of Winwood’s career, but aspects of the musicianship and slightly rearranged versions of some songs (containing some jazz and Afro-Latin elements) showed that even at this stage of his long career Winwood’s willingness to explore new musical ground, not dictated by commercial trends or past glories.
Singer Lilly Winwood, who’s based in Nashville, opened her father’s show with a brief set of her folk/country influenced tunes that recall a bit of Joni Mitchell via her acoustic guitar playing, performing songs from her EP as well as a standout track called “London.” Based on her showcase, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Back in the High Life Again
I’m a Man
Can’t Find My Way Home
Had to Cry Today
The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys>
Light Up or Leave Me Alone
Dear Mr. Fantasy
Gimme Some Lovin’