Photo credit: Anthony Scarlati
There’s a certain energy that fills the room when a band settles into a groove and begins building like a wave swelling toward the unknown. Steve Winwood is a master in composing musical spaces like these. You could hear it when he was just 19, playing organ with Jimi Hendrix in the 1968 New York studio jam session that spawned “Voodoo Chile.” You could hear it later, when as a seasoned twenty-something, Winwood molded Traffic into one of the early pillars of improvised rock n’ roll. And, you could hear it on a warm September night in Irving, Texas when Winwood brought his band to the 10-day-old Toyota Music Factory for a 90-minute set of career-spanning tunes.
With the 69-year-old Winwood behind his Hammond organ, the five-piece band kicked into “I’m A Man,” immediately setting the tone for a groove-heavy set. Winwood’s voice may have lowered slightly in pitch since he first sang “I’m A Man” as a teenager in 1967, but 50 years later his verses were every bit the soul-driving torrents they were then. Few, if any, iconic voices from the 1960s have aged better than Winwood’s.
The set continued with the smooth jazz number “Fly” and gospel-esque “At Times We Do Forget”—both off Winwood’s 2008 album Nine Lives. The tunes showcased Winwood’s new-age composition style and featured the layered sounds of percussionist Café da Silva and flutist/saxophonist Paul Booth.
Percussion has long been a staple in Winwood’s projects, creating a sense of motion as he fused rock and jazz with Latin with soul. This genres-without-borders approach to musical composition and collaboration has created enough hits to fill a festival’s worth of setlists. For this 2017 tour, which comes on the heels of the recent release of Winwood’s first live album, the Brit seems to have his setlists fine-tuned.
With his Stratocaster in hand for the first time, Winwood led the band through a pair of Blind Faith songs: a soothing “Can’t Find My Way Home” and fiery “Had To Cry Today.” It’s easy to forget Winwood’s guitar skills when you’re accustomed to hearing him on organ and piano, but when he launches into extended solos like Eric Clapton once did in Blind Faith, it’s a sharp reminder.
With Winwood back behind the piano, the inevitable “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” began, this version driven by more Afro-Cuban influence than Traffic’s brooding iteration from the early 70s. With the minimal light show letting the music do the talking, the “Low Spark” jam segued flawlessly into “Empty Pages” before the night’s longest odyssey, a funked-up “Light Up or Leave Me Alone,” gave guitarist Jose Neto a moment in the spotlight.
For a man whose roster of musical collaborations looks like the lineup of a celestial farewell show at the intersection of Jupiter’s Sulphur Mines and the Pearly Gates, it must have been a unique joy for Winwood to invite his daughter, Lilly Winwood, on tour as his special guest. She opened the night with a set of original acoustic numbers, remarking that she was playing with an “old friend of mine.” The 21-year-old Lilly rejoined her father on stage for the set-closing “Higher Love” and encore finale, “Gimme Some Lovin.’” Beyond the usual physical resemblances kin share, Lilly’s voice even sounded a bit like her father’s.
“Gimme Some Lovin’” is essentially where it all started for Steve Winwood more than 50 years ago in 1966. As the tune raged on, the elder Winwood joined by the younger—both belting the refrain like kids—it’s hard to imagine Steve Winwood could have arrived at a better place. He has defied his contemporaries, refusing to burn out or rust. The wick is long—the Winwood flame burns on.