Orange County Register: June 9, 1997, concert

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Loose, easy, and funky. Relaxed. Determined and precise to a fault, yes, but still with fire. Alive, lively, and .... smiling, of all things.

Steve Winwood? Nah, couldn't be. Not that legendary rocker whose mercurial perfectionism took him from the articulate heights of Blind Faith and Traffic in the late '60s and early '70s to a solo career of shamelessly overproduced dreck in the '80s and '90s? Crazy. He couldn't possibly be that exciting.

Well, at the Roxy Monday night, he was. For most of Winwood's nearly two-hour performance, the artist gave rise to a new aging-rocker contradiction: In Winwood's case, the records certainly do not make the man. If only his studio work had as much spontaneity as he allowed during this show. Perhaps then his album - particularly his latest, the resolutely uninspired Junction 7 - would have some special spark.

Though Monday night's set was rollickingly good, with a professional eye for quality, it wasn't without typical Winwoodian stiffness. The British virtuoso is not known, of course, for lighting his groove on without first knowing just how the fire is going to burn. So for as surprising as it was to find him enjoying limber R&B excursions through his weighty past and his so-so present, it was hardly unexpected to see him performing as if he is constantly assessing his next move - always residing in the future, never living in the now. Even his vocal vamping seemed pre-arranged.

That made for a very studied and calculated set, but something - his crack band, the smaller venue - seemed to light up Winwood's usually placid facade. Opening with three of his most engaging songs - the stalking "I'm a Man", the faux Sam & Dave-isms of "Roll With It" and the powerhouse thump of "Freedom Overspill" - he immediately connected with the intimacy of the room (odd for the gun-shy singer) and responded with some top-notch band-leading. (Winwood's playing, though sharp, has always been complementary.)

Best of all, he provided a well-balanced evening, plugging in the requisite crowd-pleasers ("Gimme Some Lovin'", "Higher Love") and unexpected gems (a smooth, subdued "Can't Find My Way Home", a sensuous "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys") while making earthy and whole his more recent material. (A duet with vocalist Val Chalmers on a Style Council-esque "Plenty Lovin" stood out.)

Still, but the time this tour comes around to larger halls, predictability will likely have taken over again. If you were lucky enough to have tickets for one of these three Roxy show, you saw something you might never see again from Winwood - an inspired performance. If you didn't, might as well go play The Best of Traffic again.

-- Ben Weiner, Orange County Register, June 10, 1997

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Page created July 21, 1997.
Last updated July 21, 1997.
Thanks to Beth M and John L for sending me the article.
© 1997 by the author; reproduce only for non-commercial purposes and with full attribution.