The first lesson any true Steve Winwood fan must learn is that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is a classic, no-frills musician – an exceptional talent who plays multiple instruments and doesn’t need an elaborate stage or any high-tech video screens to enhance his shows.
The second lesson is that Steve Winwood’s rock hall of fame legacy wasn’t built on the strength of his ‘80s pop hits alone.
In fact, the multi-talented artist is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because of those hits.
Instead, it’s his tenure in legendary ‘60s and ‘70s bands like Traffic, Blind Faith and The Spencer Davis Group that brought him into America’s consciousness and made him one of the most sought-after musicians in rock for over four decades. It was Traffic – a group that included fellow future solo hit makers Dave Mason (“We Just Disagree”) and Jim Capaldi (“That’s Love”) – that got Winwood inducted into the RRHOF on their first ballot in 2004.
Yet, when I attended the first stop on his current “Greatest Hits Live” tour here at the Chicago Theatre on February 22, I was in full ‘80s Steve Winwood mental mode. While I certainly knew of his earlier legacy, it was Winwood’s ‘80s solo fare that made me a fan. Indeed, my introduction to him had been 1981’s Arc Of A Diver album and its lead single (and still my favorite SW tune), “While You See A Chance.”
So imagine my frustration as he plowed one-by-one through classic rock songs by Traffic, Blind Faith and Spencer Davis Group on a modest, dimly lit stage while the crowd around me cheered – sometimes wildly – in its approval. At times, I began to wonder were we even watching the same show. This was anything but the ‘80s pop/rock act I’d come to know. It had none of the superficial, high-tech stage or sound enhancements that I’d come to expect over years of concert-going.
Instead, the stage and the song selections were much more throwback than I had anticipated. In keeping with that theme was the fact that the ‘80s synthesizer/keyboard virtuoso Winwood eschewed that instrument for his Hammond organ – one for which he’s famous, no doubt, but would it have been too much to ask to have both instruments on stage?
That alone should have been the first sign that, save for a couple of big hits, the ‘80s pop Steve Winwood was being tucked away in favor of the ‘60s classic rock version of the man who’ll be 70 years old this May.
To that end, the first song up was “I’m A Man” (Spencer Davis Group), a 1967 top-10 hit I’ve known now for decades and assumed that – along with the more crowd-pleasing “Gimme Some Lovin’” and maybe one or two more Traffic and Blind Faith tunes – would be the extent of his song selections from the pre-Arc Of A Diver/‘80s era.
How wrong I was.
“I’m A Man” was followed by seven more lengthy tunes that were a mix of songs by Traffic, Blind Faith, a cover of a Buddy Miles tune (“Them Changes”) and a post-hits solo Winwood track from 2004 (“Domingo Morning”).
Don’t get me wrong, the Traffic and Blind Faith songs were true classics, or at least classic rock staples. Traffic’s “Pearly Queen,” “Had To Cry Today” and “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” were played very capably by Winwood and his four talented accompanying backing musicians. And Winwood received the first of several standing O’s following his performance of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Back Home.”
Yet, while I’d heard several of those songs before, I certainly didn’t listen to enough classic rock or deep album rock cuts to REALLY know them beyond certain vaguely familiar guitar riffs. As this was the tour’s opening night, there were no set lists yet available online for me to research beforehand, much to my dismay.
You see, when I’m at a show, I at least like to sing along to the hits – or vigorously beat my “air” drums and blast my air guitar – as they’re being played by the artists.
Outside of “I’m A Man,” that opportunity didn’t come (for me at least – many others had their air drums going wildly) until just before the encore, about an hour into his set, when Winwood – joined by his daughter Lilly (who’d opened for him) – segued into a low-energy performance of his biggest solo hit, the 1988 #1 single “Roll With It,” followed by his second-biggest, “Higher Love,” another #1 from 1986.
By this time in the show, both those songs felt like obligatory add-ons, with Lilly soullessly swaying from side to side as she did backup vocals (by the way, if you see the show don’t expect any of those Chaka Khan ad-libs in Lilly’s contribution to “Higher Love”).
“Higher Love” could’ve also benefited from some of those funky keyboard riffs that helped make the original a hit in the first place. And, for it to be his greatest chart hit, “Roll With It” seemed to generate the least crowd response of all thirteen songs played that night. Both #1 songs felt like those tunes that artists are given to record but they don’t like, yet they sing them anyway and they become hits despite the artists’ disapproval.
Like nearly all nine tunes that preceded it, “Higher Love” was transformed into a lengthy jam-session before Winwood and his band surprisingly exited stage-left for what I thought was only a halfway break.
When they returned for what actually turned out to be the three-song encore, including two more Traffic tunes – “John Barleycorn (Must Die)” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” (which received the longest standing O) – there would be no “While You See A Chance,” “Arc Of A Diver,” “The Finer Things,” “Back In The High Life,” “Don’t You Know What The Night Can Do,” or “Freedom Overspill.”
There’d be none of that ‘80s pop stuff.
Instead, Winwood and Co. closed with the crowd-rousing 1967 soulful rocker “Gimme Some Lovin’,” thus ending a 13-song set in just under 90 minutes (note: his daughter’s opening set was nearly half that time).
Winwood received a genuine standing O afterwards as he and his band mates took a collective bow at center stage. And that’s when I finally got it: this audience wasn’t there for the ‘80s pop Steve Winwood.
They were there for the classic rock Stevie Winwood – courtesy of Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith and, of course, Traffic.
In hindsight, I should have known to expect more than just the ‘80s solo hits. As the tour is billed for his “Greatest Hits Live” album released this past September, I could have at least mined the songs on that album, which includes classics from all of Winwood’s eras, to get a sense of what to expect.
However, in my defense, that album does have 23 tracks on it, including some of those bigger ‘80s hits that Winwood chose to omit.
So while my lack of enjoyment can be partly attributed to my ignorance for not being vested enough into Winwood’s full legacy, the rock hall-of-famer certainly deserves some of the credit for leaving out many of the hits that made me (and I estimate many others) a fan in the first place.
But, I did do the research afterwards, and I’m still a Steve Winwood fan after all. I’ll just know what to expect next time he comes to a town near me – and after reading this, now you will too.
To get a listen to his “Greatest Hits Live” album on Spotify, click here.
Set List (Chicago Theatre, February 22, 2018):
1. “I’m A Man” (Spencer Davis Group)
2. “Pearly Queen” (Traffic)
3. “Them Changes” (Buddy Miles cover)
4. “Can’t Find My Way Home” (Blind Faith)
5. “Had To Cry Today” (Blind Faith)
6. “The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys” (Traffic)
7. “Empty Pages” (Traffic)
8. “Domingo Morning”
9. “Roll With It”
10. “Higher Love”
11. Encore: “John Barleycorn (Must Die)” (Traffic)
12. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” (Traffic)
13. “Gimme Some Lovin’” – (Spencer Davis Group)
Five Fast Facts about Steve Winwood:
1. Steve Winwood has had a total of 12 Top 40 hits (ten solo and two with The Spencer Davis Group), including eight top tens and two #1s: “Higher Love” and “Roll With It.”
2. Traffic’s induction into the RRHOF came on the heels of classic rock staples like “Empty Pages,” “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” “John Barleycorn (Must Die)” and “Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys.” However, none of Traffic’s songs charted higher than #68 on the Hot 100.
3. Blind Faith consisted of Winwood, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Rick Grech. They only existed in 1969 and never had a Hot 100 hit (although “Can’t Find My Way Home” and others from that year are considered rock classics).
4. Winwood took a break from his groups and solo career in the late ‘70s and was a prolific session musician throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s and beyond, contributing to albums by Jimi Hendrix Experience, Clapton, George Harrison, Billy Joel, Marianne Faithfull, Christine McVie, Phil Collins and many others.
5. Winwood is considered a blue-eyed soul artist, despite only having one song reach the R&B charts (“Roll With It,” #30 in 1988).