Cheltenham Festival, May 7, 2001
by Andrew Easdale

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The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham is tall , thin and small. Probably Victorian and stuccoed to an inch of its life. Three layers tall, like a slice through a rococo wedding cake. It can handle maybe 450 people including the ones on the balconies upstairs. It is also handily about 12 miles from where Steve Winwood lives.

On comes the MC to announce as the last performer in the Cheltenham Jazz Festival: "Jose Neto", which he tells us is pronounced with a J not an H (because they speak Portuguese not Spanish in Brazil). An educational MC. He confirms that Steve will indeed be playing later tonight. Great feeling of relief, because up until that moment we were still running on rumour and faith. Audience is buzzing too.

Jose wears a bandanna like Peter Green but much younger. His guitar is curious in that it ends with a spike as the machine heads were broken off and it appears to have no pick ups or controls. It even has a hole where you would expect the pick ups. His band is very good and manages to avoid sounding either like lift music or musical masturbation, unlike a lot of what passes for "jazz".

First song, "Capa America", is all band. Great guitar from Jose. No vocals. The second, "Pablo", features the drummer, who is also very good indeed and has that tuneful swing that is essential to the Brazilian sound. The third song, "Fish", featured the bass player who is good but who does veer awfully close to onanism in his solo. He lost me for a bit. Fourth song is a keyboard feature. The keyboard player was the musical director for the Rainforest concerts with Sting I think. They have been together for about ten years and are tight . The overall sound is not dissimilar to say a Brazilian Return to Forever. Out comes an acoustic guitar for three songs, "7th wave", "Dive Into" and "London 2000", then the moment many of us have all been waiting for.

On he comes looking the same as ever. Sharp haircut, youthful face, suit but no tie, with a book of their music which he put on top of the organ. Strong up-tempo number to start, called "Gypsies". Hammond B3 gradually builds in the mix and gives texture to the tune, vying with the guitar. Very fine and long enough to give everybody space without tiring the crowd.

The PA starts to hiss as they go into a quieter song "Sylvia", not the Focus song. Steve leans into the mike and for the first time since 1999 he is singing here. Can't decipher the lyrics and they are low in the mix but his voice complements the music which is instrumental in focus. Lovely to hear Steve play something we haven't heard a dozen times before but that does pale into insignificance besides what follow, a near definitive live "Low Spark". Manic piano, full bass, acoustic guitar, percussive drums and Steve on Hammond. All you needed was the ghost of Chris Wood. The lady behind commented after the song "I can die now". Not a bad summary of the performance.

Steve asked the audience to give a warm Gloucestershire welcome to the Jose Neto Band and we did. "Fax", the fourth number with SW, featured him on vocals but there was no real lyric that I could detect. The Hammond, guided by a master, fitted really well into their sound. By this stage I had stopped taking notes and was just enjoying the show.

An incredible and wild new introduction and from the sound emerges "I'm a Man". Jose's hands literally a blur across the strings. Steve sings the vocal well, but again it is the instruments that dominate the arrangement and to add to the fun they keep reprising the ending. Three times the finale arrives and before they decide that that is enough and it ends. Everybody was suddenly up on their feet cheering and clapping. Back they came. "Swamp", then a drum break, and "Redemption Song" as an instrumental.

About one hour of sheer joy. They may record together or they may not, but if they do I hope that it is live not studio. This felt like the right environment to hear them.

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Page created May 8, 2001.
Last updated May 8, 2001.
© 2001 by the author; reproduce only for non-commercial purposes and with full attribution.