Few pop stylists have seen their career reborn more frequently than Steve Winwood. But throughout the various solo, band and collaborative projects it has employed, Winwood’s music – a distinctive and refined version of British r&b filtered through various shades of rock, folk and prog – has remained remarkably consistent. He proved why in very short order last night at the Louisville Palace.
For starters, there was the voice – a high, expressive wail born out of vintage soul that last night sounded remarkably unaffected by the ages. At 65, Winwood hit at the upper range of vintage fare like Had to Cry Today (a forgotten gem he cut with the short lived 1969 supergroup Blind Faith) and contemporary works such as Fly (one of the two songs performed from Winwood’s most recent recording, 2008’s Nine Lives) with ease. Fortifying those works was perhaps Winwood’s second most recognizable voice – a command of the Hammond organ that seemed conversational and almost casual in execution. But it provided an orchestral, organic bedrock of sound, even on the more processed and synthesized 1986 hit Higher Love, the only work offered from Winwood’s ‘80s and’90s commercial renaissance.
That led to the songs themselves. While Winwood’s recording career is nearing the half century mark, the show’s repertoire (save for Higher Love and the two Nine Lives tunes) was pulled from a wildly fruitful seven year perod (1965-1972) when Winwood leapfrogged between three cornerstones bands of the day – the Spencer Davis Group (the celebratory show finale of Gimme Some Lovin’), the aforementioned Blind Faith (an elegiac Can’t Find My Way Home) and the mighty Traffic (a jazzed up Low Spark of High Heeled Boys).
The Traffic inspiration extended to the very makeup of Winwood’s current band. Its keyboard/guitar/sax and flute/drums/percussion design essentially replicated Traffic in its later years. That allowed a relative obscurity like Rainmaker to open the show with a sense of psychedelic cool while a true Traffic anthem, Dear Mr. Fantasy, made for a hearty jam-style encore that placed Winwood on guitar for a solo that rivaled the ingenuity of his old Blind Faith bandmate, Eric Clapton.
Through it all, Winwood couldn’t have appeared less like a rock star. But the unassuming performance manner only enhanced the authority and spirit of a truly ageless rock ‘n’ roll journeyman.