Shepherds Bush Empire 20th June 2013
Even from up here on the balcony, there’s something about the figure of Steve Winwood – 64 years young, medium of stature, and still suave even when sporting a pair of superb Cockleshell Bay-style mutton chops – that remains immediately striking and charismatic. Whether sat at a vintage, 100 percent authentic Hammond organ and electric piano, or stood strumming all manner of vintage string instrumentation, the man simply exudes undeniable class and panache. Then again, we are talking about a man who’s been bringing us his own unique blend of blue-eyed Soul, Rock and Psychedelia for almost 50 years, since he first convinced thousands of radio listeners (my own father included) that they were actually hearing the voice of a genuine Black American man, and not a shy White Brummie teenager.
And that voice hasn’t changed much either. I could list numerous vintage, veteran and ‘heritage’ acts I’ve seen over the years whose vocal prowess has either diminished or damn near vanished completely, but Winwoods’ tone and timbre is still as smooth, evocative and resonant as ever, still carrying off the likes of ‘I’m A Man’ or ‘The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys’ and ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ – the latter a lyric that I’m sure has crossed many of our minds when stumbling out of a NUTs allnighter- with the exact same fervour he would have in ’66, ‘69 or ’72. At times, as on the relentlessly funky ‘Had To Cry Today’, the notes simply tumble from his mouth, causing many of us to open our own in sheer awe.
However, lest we forget, that’s only one third of the Winwood experience. Would the Mod, Psych , R’n’B or even progressive Rock Scenes of the late 60s-early 70s have been the same without his deft, subtle keyboard playing? I sincerely doubt it – and witnessing him still faithfully replicate that soulful, swinging timbre on an extended, free-jamming ‘Light Up Or Leave Me Alone’ (a worthy tribute to his departed bandmate and lyricist, Jim Capaldi) or my own personal favourite ‘Empty Pages’ – the very first song I ever danced to at Lordy Lords all those years ago- simply hammers that even further home. Then there’s his obvious mastery on acoustic AND electric guitars and mandolin, which bring extra texture to low-key, folkish opener ‘Rainmaker’ and an improved, mellowed and thoroughly reworked ‘Back In The High Life Again’ – a song which, now stripped of the atrocious “big production” techniques of its original 80s incarnation, sits easily and snugly among its older counterparts. Of course, the sly old muse teased us at this juncture by playing the intro to ‘John Barleycorn’ first (play it in full next time, please) but in a way, that only reiterates my point even further.
In fact, by applying this technique to all the 80s material aired tonight, even ‘Higher Love’, Winwood achieves what others have often thought impossible, by making the previously unlistenable not only listenable, but thoroughly agreeable. Where big, reverby, handclappy drums and synths once stood, now sit subtle congas and moody, atmospheric Hammond: where multitracked vocals once populated a nightmarish ‘Yuppie disco’ in your head, an understated groove now flits about the room, the same method also serving more recent entries ‘Fly’ and ‘At Times We Do Forget’ equally well. Sadly there’s no room for the Viv Stanshall-composed ‘Arc Of A Diver’, still probably Steve’s best latterday cut, (“Latterday?” It’s 33 years old!! – Ed) but when faced with the full-on R’n’B/Brum Beat thrust of ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ and ‘Keep On Running’, even without the slashing Davis guitar of the originals, that’s not really an issue. And as for ‘Dear Mr Fantasy’…’staggering’ doesn’t even begin to do it justice.
Whereas previous shows from the last decade may have stood outside our remit somewhat, tonight’s set, could almost have been tailor-made for a NUTs reader, many of whom probably never saw the original Spencer Davis Group, will never see Traffic (especially now he and Dave Mason are the only members left alive) and almost certainly never see Blind Faith: the irony being, I actually had no idea what I was going to get until I entered the Empire’s ancient portals. May I suggest, therefore, that anyone reading this who hasn’t seen Steve Winwood yet should do so as soon as possible, wherever possible? Judging by the crowd, I wasn’t the only Mod, Psych head or 6Ts nut in the audience (as opposed to the MOR twats who had populated the Joe Cocker show at Hammersmith two months previously), and I definitely wasn’t the only one knocked sideways by what I witnessed, as I’m sure you too will be. An extraordinary show from an extraordinary man.
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