Saturday, February 24, 2018

Playing His 'Greatest Hits Live,' Steve Winwood Looks Back, Selectively -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Steve Winwood 
w/ opening act Lilly Winwood
Chicago Theatre
February 22, 2017

I doubt I'm the only one who thinks of Steve Winwood in terms of his early and late periods.

"Early Winwood"--roughly covering 1963-74--comprises his stints in the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith, culminating when the the singer/songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist was just 25.

Loosely from 1977 to 1990, the British wunderkind had a number of high-charting solo albums and hit singles. Like many I imagine, I'm not too familiar with the three studio albums he released after that, meaning that at least in terms of peak popularity, the "Late Winwood" period ended by the age of 42.

In May, Steve Winwood will turn 70.

Presumably, few on hand Thursday evening at a packed Chicago Theatre for a tour openly promoted as "Greatest Hits Live," much cared that--as Winwood sounded strong vocally and instrumentally alongside four other excellent musicians--he didn't focus much on his work since the late period. 

Yes, for the first time ever, he played a song called "Domingo Morning" from his 2003 album About Time.

And there was also "Them Changes," a cover of a 1970 Buddy Miles song that Winwood played on his 2009 tour with Eric Clapton; if it was previously part of his repertoire, I'm not aware. 

But classics from the Spencer Davis Group (the opening "I'm a Man" and closing "Gimme Some Lovin'), Traffic ("Pearly Queen," "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys," "Empty Pages," "John Barleycorn," "Dear Mr. Fantasy") and Blind Faith ("Can't Find My Way Home," "Had to Cry Today") well represented "Early Winwood" in the 13-song, 90-minute show. (See the setlist on

Quite admittedly, I was a bit under the weather at the show, having stayed in bed all day and dragging myself down to the Chicago Theatre because I had a ticket and, well, one never knows how many more opportunities may exist to see the living legends. (It wasn't lost on me that I'd seen Winwood opening for Tom Petty in both 2008 and 2014. I'd also seen him back in 1986 and in-tandem with Clapton in 2009.)

So, acutely, I appreciated the relative brevity of Winwood's set, following a nice opening performance by his daughter Lilly, a rather fine singer.

And although my take on the concert was roughly congruent with a friend who attended separately--that several classic songs, most notably "Can't Find My Way Home" and "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," were well-performed, making for fine show with nothing that quite elevated it to an phenomenal one--it's certainly possible that my own fevered headspace impacted my enjoyment. 

But strictly from a critical standpoint, even if the omissions got me back to bed 20 minutes earlier, I think the setlist shortchanged the "Late Winwood" period I cited above.

With Lilly joining her dad and band at the end of the main set, only "Roll With It" and "Higher Love" represented Winwood's hit laden, MTV rotation years, with the former perhaps the nadir that prompts some fans to dismiss this era.

But I--at least theoretically--would love to have heard "While You See a Chance," "Arc of a Diver," "Valerie," "Back in the High Life Again" and/or "The Finer Things."

Along with "Higher Love," I think these are genuinely some of Steve Winwood's greatest hits and could have well-accompanied, or even replaced, a few of the other selections. 

And, again, perhaps due to my somewhat addled perception--and seat near the top of the Chicago, rather neatly next to a blind man soaking in just the music itself--I felt the concert needed a bit more oomph. 

And not just in terms of pumping up the volume a bit. 

Content to let the music do the talking, Winwood said almost nothing to the crowd. And with such a rich history to reflect upon, I think this would heightened the sense of connection I value in the very best concerts.

Whether in sharing a bit of context about the songs, or his old bands, or how proud he was to have his daughter opening the show for him, or any recollections of Chicago--which he made this tour's first stop--I would have liked the star to have engaged a bit more with the audience. 

But obviously, I got out of my sick bed for the music, and all of it was good, some of it thrilling. 

"Empty Pages" stands among the highlights and along with still being an excellent singer, Winwood reminded on "Them Changes" that he isn't just a legendary keyboardist, but a truly first-rate guitarist. (I was surprised to have read somewhere that in circa 1967 London, Winwood--not Page, Beck, Townsend, Richards and preceding Hendrix--was considered second-best to Clapton.)

Truth be told, had I known exactly the show I would get, I might have opted to stay in bed. It wasn't that special.

But once I'm fully recovered--I'm getting there--I'll be happy to have seen one of the all-time greats yet again. 

Even if some of his greatest hits were regrettably missing.

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