Boston Globe: Oct 12, 1997, concert

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Too few sparks in Winwood's show

Poor Steve Winwood. He has a dilemma that most artists of his generation have - namely, listeners who just want to hear the older songs. Winwood, who has had a successful solo career on top of stints with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and Blind Faith, gamely tried to debut a bunch of new songs at the Orpheum on Sunday. ''We're going to stick with the new stuff for a while,'' he said.

''No!'' screamed a fan near the front.

Winwood played them anyway, but judging from the response from the 2,000 fans (surprisingly, not a sold-out show), many folks seemed to merely tolerate them rather than jump for joy.

This was a show that, frankly, was not Winwood's best. His song list was uneven. He let his band jam too much (an endless percussion and drum joust grew wearisome). He played too many new songs (five, at the expense of a better career mix). And the old ones he played tended to be the same ones he's always played. Hey, it's time to spice up the set a little.

If you hadn't seen Winwood before, you were probably still impressed. After all, he's uncannily talented, has a blue-eyed soul voice second to none, and plays multiple instruments from organ and piano to electric guitar and mandolin. The man is a monster talent. No argument there.

But if you had seen Winwood before, you may feel, as I did, that this could have been a better show. The set list didn't have the flow of a great Winwood evening. And where he normally does Spencer Davis Group oldies ''I'm a Man'' and ''Gimme Some Loving'' back to back near the encores to great effect, he split them up and opened with ''I'm a Man,'' which landed almost like a throwaway.

There was still much to recommend, not least of all that his 10 -piece band was a well-oiled machine. And he generously let them shine, especially trumpeter Kevin Robinson, drummer Wilfredo Juarez (who has played with Santana), percussionist Kevin Rickard, and singer Valerie Chalmer, who stepped up to duet on the new ''Plenty Lovin','' singing the part done on the album by Des'ree. Also, it was encouraging to see a new Latin pulse in ''Back to My Baby.''

As for the older hits, though, they were very predictable. He did most of his Top 10 hits (heck, you've got to do those) in ''Higher Love,'' ''The Finer Things,'' ''Roll With It,'' and the dreamily romantic ''While You See a Chance'' (his first Top 10 hit in 1981). Otherwise, he again did songs such as ''Freedom Overspill'' (it's better on CD, where Joe Walsh plays slide guitar) and the long, jazzy ''Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,'' which extended to 20-plus minutes when the soloing finally subsided. Cool song, but he needs to retire it a while.

It would have been nice to instead hear ''Dear Mr. Fantasy'' or ''40,000 Headmen'' from his Traffic days, especially since the Grateful Dead repopularized them in recent years and many young people have not yet heard the originals. And it would be nice to hear a Blind Faith song apart from ''Can't Find My Way Home,'' which was hurt Sunday by a sound mix that let his voice melt into the band rather than fly atop it.

Winwood also sang Sly Stone's ''A Family Affair'' (as he does on the new album), which reaffirmed his R&B roots. An increase in R&B is the premise of the latest tour - but that also came at the expense of a better career mix. Did most people come to hear him sing a Sly Stone song? I don't think so.

Moral of the story: Winwood needs to challenge his audience more. And not just by doing new songs. The effect of Sunday's quasi-mishmash was to make the show peak later than usual. When it finally did peak, Winwood was fairly wondrous to behold. But this was just a B-minus show by his standards.

-- Steve Morse

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Page created October 20, 1997.
Last updated November 3, 1997.
© 1997 by the author; reproduce only for non-commercial purposes and with full attribution.