One of the advantages of being a rock star of mature years is that you can breed your own support act. Nashville-based Lilly Winwood (yup, she’s Steve’s daughter) performs a short solo singer-songwritery set, including a cover of John Prine’s Angel from Montgomery. Her genes have blessed her with a strong voice and it’s all pleasant enough if insufficiently distinctive to stand out in an increasingly overcrowded field.
The great thing about the Steve Winwood of 2017 is that he sounds much more like the Steve Winwood of the late 1960s and early 1970s than the Steve Winwood of the 1980s and 1990s. That’s partly a reflection of the set, which is weighted heavily towards Traffic, with Blind Faith and the Spencer Davis Group each represented by a brace of songs. But it’s also a consequence of stretching out and jamming On the Road-style with his talented four-piece band, such that even those very eighties pop-soul ditties fit right in when stripped of their dated digital production sheen.
There’s no big stage set tonight, as it’s all about the music. The band are arranged in a semi-circle with master percussionist Edwin Sanz’s congas placed centre stage and Winwood seated at his organ to the left. Lighting is fairly basic, though the constantly moving spotlights sometimes give the unfortunate impression that they’ve all just escaped from a PoW camp. One half expects to hear machine gun fire at any moment.
They ease in with a mix of old and new material stretching all the way back to the Spencer Davis Group’s I’m a Man from 1967 and including a very welcome airing of Pearly Queen from Traffic’s second album. But the set really takes off when Winwood gets to his feet, straps on his guitar, and plays his two Blind Faith classics that open the band’s sole, eponymous album: the soulful Can’t Find My Way Home and hypnotic, groove-laden Had to Cry Today. How did such a troubled, short-lived ‘supergroup’ manage to produce such great, enduring music? We’re also reminded that not only is Winwood blessed with a remarkable, distinctive and undimmed blue-eyed soul voice, but he’s also a hell of a guitar player – in a tasteful, non-flashy style. Small wonder his Brummie peers, such as a certain Robert Plant, were reportedly in awe of ‘Little Stevie’ Winwood back in the mid-’60s.
A lovely The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys permits his band to shine. They’re mostly from a jazz/soul background, though veteran drummer Richard Bailey played on Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow. Oddly, there’s no bassist, but a second guitarist in the form of long-term collaborator Jose Neto, who takes the lead when Winwood is at the keyboard but knows instinctively when to take a discreet step back into the shadows.
Saxophonist Paul Booth gets his big moment with a blistering solo during an epic yet sprightly reading of the late Jim Capaldi’s Light Up or Leave Me Alone, which features two (count ’em!) contrasting drum solos from Sanz and Bailey – equally impressive, very different in style – but doesn’t make the mistake of outstaying its welcome. It’s a performance that’s reminiscent of one of those great American jam bands, with additional jazz chops.
Lilly returns to contribute backing vocals to set closer Higher Love, which she re-recorded with her pa for a US Hershey commercial (hey – even a guy who lives in a grand Cotswolds manor house has gotta eat), this mullet-era hit being reworked and extended to suit his current band. The encore sees Winwood reaching for his guitar again for a storming Dear Mr. Fantasy, followed, inevitably, by a trip back to 1966 for Gimme Some Lovin’. Nine years on from his last studio album, he seems in no great hurry to produce any new music. But then his enviable catalogue really is the gift that keeps on giving.