Classic Rock Corner

Steve Winwood Drives Into Heavy Traffic at Smart Financial Centre

Steve Winwood stuck mostly to songs from his '60s bands Blind Faith, Traffic and Spencer Davis Group Thursday.
Steve Winwood stuck mostly to songs from his '60s bands Blind Faith, Traffic and Spencer Davis Group Thursday. Photo by Violeta Alvarez
Steve Winwood
Smart Financial Centre
September 21, 2017

Two groups were bound to be disappointed leaving Thursday's Steve Winwood show. The first would be those expecting a heavy helping of his many synthesizer-driven ‘80s hits. The other would be those hoping to hear his speaking voice.

For the former crowd, there was only “Higher Love,” which sounded surprisingly off and choppy, sticking out severely from the rest of the set. For the latter, there were some brief mid-concert comments thanking the audience for coming out. “I know you’ve had a tough few weeks,” he offered kindly in his distinct English accent. “We’re going to bring you some music while you dry out.”

But for those – like me – who greatly appreciate the work of his first three groups, the modish R&B of the Spencer Davis Group, the jazzy jams of Traffic, and the ethereal power of supergroup Blind Faith, it was a night of deep, deep devotionals spearheaded by Winwood’s still-pristine voice; the deep grooves of his Hammond B-3 organ (the only keyboard onstage all night); and his dexterous, power chording guitar playing.

It also helped that his backup band – guitarist, sax/flute/organ player, drummer and percussionist – were pound-for-pound the best pure musicians of any Classic Rocker Backing Band I’ve seen in years. They were Jose Neto (guitar), Paul Booth (sax/flute/organ), Edwin Sanz (percussion), and Richard Bailey (drums). Neto was simply marvelous and a revelation – playing with just his fingers!

Among the highlights were Traffic’s “Pearly Queen” and an extended, tight take on a very funky “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” – each giving players plenty of breathing room. Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” took matters to a spiritual level, and the guitar duel on "Hard to Cry Today" simmered. One newer song from 2008 – “Fly” – could stand pedal-to-pedal with some of Winwood's more famous material.

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Pound for pound, Winwood's backing musicians were the best Classic Rocker Backing Band reviewer has seen in years.
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
The encores proved quite the contrast, with the expansive FM classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and the blood-pumping “Gimme Some Lovin’” – overplayed as it is – hitting their marks. Only a somewhat listless, by-the-book “I’m a Man” and newer song “At Times We Do Forget” failed to register.

Steve Winwood has also just released the double CD Greatest Hits Live, one of the best-sounding classic-rock live discs in a while. And while he might not be much for speaking to audiences with his conversation, what he conveys with his singing voice and music speaks volumes. Now, if he and Dave Mason could just bury the hatchet...

Personal Bias: Great admirer of the late-’60s to mid-’70s material, not as keen on the ’80s. But happy to have a chance to see a legend, making the hard decision not to see one of my favorite contemporary groups – the Tedeschi Trucks Band – playing the same night over in downtown Houston.

The Crowd: Forty- to sixtysomething and blindingly white. A handful of ex-hippies. Far fewer tie-dyed shirts than you’d think.

So, How Was the Opener? She was an adequately talented, willowy, plaintive and oh so earnest singer-songwriter who played a half hour of sleep-inducing “sad folk songs” (her words). Many with the same chord variations and sung with nary a vocal variation. Her name? Lilly Winwood. She was happy to open for "an old friend" of hers.

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Winwood has recently released the double CD Greatest Hits Live.
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
Random Notebook Dump: Houston did not get “Glad/Freedom Rider,” which Austin audiences did the night before. One of my favorite Traffic tunes!

Seen in the Crowd: Kudos to the very, very patient and professional older black female security usher by the soundboard who finally had to eject two obviously inebriated blond women from the row in front of me. I could maybe overlook the seat-squatting, the loud talking, the spastic Look-at-Me dancing, and even the endless photo-taking, video-shooting and texting during the show. But when one of them started chucking ice from her drink at an unsuspecting couple two rows up for a lark and then began condescending to and putting hands on the usher, it was time for removal. The usher even gave the ladies two chances to Calm the Hell Down first and stay, and they heeded neither opportunity. Adiós, Chardonnay Sisters!

I’m a Man
At Times We Do Forget
Pearly Queen
Them Changes
Can’t Find My Way Home
Had to Cry Today
The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
Empty Pages
Light Up or Leave Me Alone
Higher Love

Dear Mr. Fantasy
Gimme Some Lovin’
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero