Humphrey’s By The Bay, August 19, 2008
When you draft the shortlist of blue-eyed soul pioneers, Steve Winwood quickly drifts to the top. If you filter by Brit, he usually tops the list.
At Humphrey’s, his four piece band sauntered onstage and laid down a compelling groove. Winwood soon followed, taking his place behind his Hammond organ. I realized that rarely had I sat in a more appropriate section for a concert: B3. As with every concert at Humphrey’s, there is no bad seat.
Winwood led the band through a solid two plus hours of old and new tunes, with long stretches of riveting instrumental breaks. It was a tremendous show. Winwood’s touring band honed their chops recording Winwood’s recent album, Nine Lives. The obvious and joyful interplay among the band was palpable and infectious.
A few tracks from the new album (including a fine reading of “I’m Not Drowning”) preceded the show’s centerpiece: a handful of Traffic songs. Guitarist Jose Pires De Almeida Neto plucked the opening riff of 1971’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” (which was about the only time all evening a piano was needed). Drummer Richard Bailey and percussionist Karl Vanden Bossche built a solid rhythm, on which Winwood stretched. “Empty Pages” followed, and Winwood’s upper register was in fine form. All evening Paul Booth switched between various saxophones and flutes. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” rounded out the Traffic cuts.
Winwood also reached back to 1969 and his short-lived days with Eric Clapton in Blind Faith. (The band’s name was a result of avid promoters looking to book the supergroup sight and sound unseen). “Can’t Find My Way Home” was a strong reminder of how fluidly Winwood moves from keyboards to guitar, unlike Clapton. Both are fabulous guitarists, but Winwood is rarely listed among the finer guitarists to emerge from the original British invasion. Winwood was fully at ease with his trademark baby blue Fender, wringing notes with aplomb.
His biggest chart success came in the mid-80s, and he satiated the crowd with “Higher Love.” The song has withstood the test of time less successfully than the vintage Traffic tracks from a decade earlier. Winwood closed the show with the song he has performed in concert consistently since he first wrote and performed it at age 15: “Gimme Some Lovin’.” A longer setlist would have included “While You See a Chance” (his first breakout solo hit) or a couple hidden gems from his late Traffic era: “When the Eagle Flies” or “Walking in the Wind.” But that makes me seem greedy.