There were a couple of striking things about Stevie Winwood’s sold-out show last weekend at Salina’s Stiefel Theater. One was that he and the band were playing as if they were an actual hard-rock band in about the first Traffic era.
The other was the crowd. The graybeards were out in force, listening so attentively during the actual songs that Winwood’s daughter, singer, guitarist, and character Lilly remarked on how quiet things got when she was performing her 10 songs during her 30-minute opening set.
Then Winwood’s quintet, the same guys he’s traveled with since at least 2009, could be seen adjusting to the crowd as they played. The audience didn’t give them great energy when the numbers were going, but was enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
Winwood is one of the great and abiding talents of recent popular music. Growing up around Birmingham, England, he was a choir boy. With his older brother Muff, later one of the prime figures in the successful operation of Island Records, 15-year-old keyboarder Stevie joined British Invasion band the Spencer Davis Group, became the lead singer and co-wrote hits including “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man.”
By 19 he was ready for new challenges. He formed Traffic with lyricist and drummer Jim Capaldi, reed player Chris Wood, and guitarist Dave Mason, who wrote “Feelin’ Alright.” If Spencer Davis favored rhythm and blues, Traffic was into jazz. But after some great successes, Winwood left the band to join old acquaintance Eric Clapton in Blind Faith.
In that group, Winwood played guitar as much as keys. Blind Faith lasted one album, as did Ginger Baker’s Air Force. Then Winwood called up Wood and Capaldi and started up Traffic again. In the late 1970s he began making solo albums. Perhaps his 1986 single “Higher Love,” written with Will Jennings, was a career capper. That single reached No. 1 on Billboard.
By his own admission, Winwood is currently on a “greatest hits” tour. So, what did he play in Salina? He opened with “I’m a Man,” worked through a few great Traffic songs (“Empty Pages” and audience favorite “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”), played Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes,” did a couple of well-received Blind Faith songs (“Had to Cry Today” and “Can’t Find My Way Home”), played the newer song “Domingo,” and then finished with older solo stuff, “Roll With it Baby” and the great “Higher Love,” to which Lilly added her voice.
The encore was fabulous. It began with Winwood singing and playing an acoustic guitar, supported by his flute-wielding utility musician. They did a mesmerizing version of the folk number “John Barleycorn.” That was the real musical highlight of the show. Then the conga player, the kit drummer, the guitarist, and Lilly returned to the stage for versions of “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Gimme Some Lovin.’ ”
The musicians were solid and technically proficient. They seemed to be enjoying the performance. And mild Winwood didn’t go in much for yammering. Neither act was introduced before its performance, for example.
As the solos seemed still alive, not rehearsed in detail, and as the show depended very much on instrumental solos for its effect, what Winwood played was a lot like a hard-rock concert from the late 1960s.
No wonder it was devoured by the Salina crowd, which was made up of people the right age to remember when they first heard the Spencer Davis Group on AM radio and to have absolutely reveled in “Low Spark.”
But because the show was being performed by working musicians who were honestly trying to find new things to do with old songs, there was a little wandering in most of what would have been Xacto-sharp corners. And, then, the instrumentation of the band gave it small problems.
Oh, they could do the horn lines with keyboard support. But without a bass, and with two drummers always playing simultaneously, the edge of the rhythm was less stiff than we might have wished.
Nevertheless, this Stiefel show deserves to be remembered along with Roger Daltry’s and Roger McGuinn’s. Great old stuff sometimes out in Salina. And Stevie Winwood was certainly great.