Chicago Tribune: Oct 28, 1997, concert

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Winwood overstuffs his Park West Show

Of all the British singers who emerged in the '60s with a Ray Charles fetish - Steve Marriott, Eric Burdon, Joe Cocker and countless others - Steve Winwood was the one least likely to shout. Not that Winwood couldn't wail. As a teen in the Spencer Davis Group, he was persuasively declaring "I'm a man" with a grit beyond his years, and that roaring anthem - led by Winwood's swirling, sanctified Hammond organ chords - cleared a path Tuesday for the first of three concerts at the Park West.

What distinguished Winwood from his '60s peers, however, was that his brand of blue-eyed soul also embraced an intense, if often low-key, spirituality, a self-effacing fragility that suggested the singer was in in the grip of some higher power. His music consistently emphasizes affirmation and redemption in the face of hardship: "While you see a chance, take it"; "Bring me a higher love"; "The finer things keep shinin' through"; "All the doors I closed one times will open up again."

But there was a nagging sense at the Park West that this healing message, while often well articulated by Winwood's still-strong, often remarkable tenor voice, was lacking something. Never the most charismatic performer, Winwood is a superb musician and singer who must rely on his music - which straddles soul and jazz - to carry the evening. And, in keeping with the immaculately constructed, slick production of his albums since his 1980 solo triumph, "Arc of a Diver," he brought with him a band of impeccably skilled musicians.

Though there was much to admire about this seven-piece ensemble, abetted by two backup singers, there was little warmth. Not that the band couldn't swing hard or deliver knockout solos; percussionist Kevin Ricard in particular illustrated that Winwood's rhythms owe as much to the Caribbean as they do to Memphis. But too often the arrangements erred on the side of overkill; Winwood's newer material was more slick than soulful, including a pedestrian cover of Sly and the Family Stone's "Family Affair," and the classic Traffic tracks, "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" and "Glad" were weighed down by flashy trumpet and drum solos, respectively.

"Strip me of everything, including my pride," Winwood pleaded on "Low Spark," and while the singer's pride was never at issue, he should have heeded his own advice when it came to the buffed, overstuffed arrangements. Only on his old Blind Faith hymn "Can't Find My Way Home" did the singer allow the music breathing-room; with just a handful of acoustic instruments and his voice, Winwood gave the concert a luminous moment of clarity.

With a musician as nuanced and talented as Winwood, less is not only more, it's an absolute necessity.

-- Greg Kot

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