May 8, 2015 Steve Winwood take The Space at Westbury, NY higher 4-23-15
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Steve Winwood has had a diverse career spanning over fifty years. A multi-instrumentalist, his professional career began at the tender age of seventeen, achieving a number one single as part of The Spencer Davis Group in January of 1966. He would go on to form legendary Rock band Traffic with Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason, and Chris Wood. Prior to Traffic’s hiatus, Winwood would join Cream’s Ginger Baker (drums) and Eric Clapton (guitar, vocals), as well as bassist Rich Grech, to form the supergroup Blind Faith to release their one and only self-titled album in 1969, topping the U.S. and U.K. Billboard album charts. Already thoroughly accomplished, in 1977 he saw the beginning of his solo career going on to release nine studio albums, with 1986’s Back in the High Life finding the most commercial success, peaking at number three on the U.S. Billboard charts, and selling over five million copies. Now all these years later, Winwood continues to perform live to sold out crowds, and on Thursday April 23rd, he brought a rich history and incredibly diverse sound to The Space at Westbury, New York. A part of his nine date Spring run, Winwood was greeted once again by a capacity crowd ready for a for a night of rollicking Soul, Rock and Roll, and Jazz-fused jams.
Opening the night was Buffalo, New York native Marc Scibilia. Now based out of East Nashville, Tennessee, Scibilia has been working hard on his brand of Folk Rock music through a series of EPs, including his 2013 effort, The Shape I’m In. A well-versed traveler of the country, his return to his home state of New York was received well as The Space at Westbury fans dug in to his personal songs including “Wide Open Arms,” and his recognizable cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Coming across as a humble artist, Scibilia put on a fantastic set that showcased his delightfully smooth voice. After touring in support of SomeKindaWonderful and Winwood, Scibilia recently wrapped up a handful of dates with James Bay. Be sure to check him out as he is bound to make his way across the states again sometime soon.
Joining Winwood on stage was Jose Neto (guitar), Paul Booth (saxophone/flute/organ), Richard Bailey (drums), and Edson da Silva (percussion). Opening the show was The Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man;” the organ-drenched intro got the crowd buzzing immediately. Thereafter, the pounding drums and sing-along chorus was the perfect primer for the night as it set the stage for what would turn into a night of high energy music from Winwood and his band. The night’s only cover came next as Winwood and company went right into Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes, ” which featured a blistering lead on sax that had the crowd enthralled. The transition was seamless as the two tracks share an almost identical melody. The funk-laden track kept the party going with Neto laying down a rapid fire solo, followed by a bouncy saxophone solo from Booth, evoking the best of late ’60s early ’70s Soul music.
Delving back to Traffic’s self-titled 1968 LP, the band got into Folk Rock with “Pearly Queen.” Over a slinky guitar lead, Winwood punctuated the sound with heavy notes on the organ while Neto and Booth took turns soloing on guitar and flute respectively while da Silva continually pounded the congas. Booth brought a haunting, fairy-tale sound to the track with his flute, while Winwood echoed the sound on the organ during the extended outro. Stepping out from behind the organ, Winwood strapped on an acoustic-electric guitar and took a spot, front and center, on the stage for Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” The rest of the band kept it simple, laying down a quiet foundation while Winwood picked the guitar in reserved Folk Country style throughout while singing in inspired fashion, as did the crowd who sang along from start to finish. Taking a moment to speak to the crowd, Winwood thanked everyone for coming out and announced that the set would consist of music that would be “predominantly vintage.”
After cluing the audience in to the plans for the night, of heavy selections from his most popular era, Winwood said, “Except for this one,” and then proceeded to play “Dirty City” from his 2008 release Nine Lives. A surprising selection from the Rock icon, it proved to be a good one as Booth took a seat at the organ and Winwood played a guitar lead reminiscent of golden era Traffic. Heavily distorted and incorporating the sound of the late ’60s English Blues scene, Winwood sang an impassioned, gruff vocal over the sullen music which was tempered with jubilant percussion and an all-out reggae inspired finale, showing Winwood and the band’s versatility.
Following next was three classic Traffic tunes, spanning well over thirty minutes, allowing everyone to kick back and enjoy the music. “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” started the run. While the studio version comes in just under twelve minutes, the band shortened that by about four minutes, eliminating a large portion of the middle instrumental section. After the first chorus, Neto took center stage with a nearly four minute guitar solo that incorporated fuzz-heavy Rock elements as well as dashes of Jazz and Flamenco. “Glad,” from 1970s smash album John Barleycorn Must Die, is normally played with “Freedom Rider” as the songs spilled into each other on the LP, but on this night, it would segue into “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” from 1971’s Low Spark of High Heeled Boys album, and it would go on for over twenty minutes. The jam allowed Winwood to show off his penchant for penning complex arrangements as the band touched on Rock, Jazz, and Folk in dazzling fashion. Wrought with dynamic changes, the song incorporated lengthy solos on organ, guitar, saxophone, flute, and de Silva and Bailey also took a turn in the spotlight on percussion and drums. “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” would feature another long interlude on saxophone from Booth before being followed by a light, airy solo from Neto. Receiving a sea of cheers, Winwood would go on to close the set with “Higher Love” from 1986’s smash album Back in the High Life. Opening with Caribbean flavored drums, the band which were then augmented with a simple one note riff on piano, Winwood sang the tune with intense emotion, allowing the crowd to take over for the chorus. Here, the band did not stretch out too much, but laid down a flawless rendition of a song that is now a staple on multiple radio formats.
After a brief departure, Winwood and his bandmates returned for a two song encore. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” was first. The psychedelic masterpiece from their debut album Mr. Fantasy brought a roar from the crowd as the gentle intro on drums gave way to the signature guitar riff played by Winwood, who was once again front and center on stage with an electric guitar. Known mostly for his work on piano and organ, he showed the depths of his musical talents on the encore opener as he tore through two extended solos, echoing the best artists of the ’60s and ’70s such as Hendrix, Beck, Clapton, Mayall, and even sprinkled in some heavy, feedback-laced, crunching runs channeling Page, Blackmore, and Iommi. Winwood really let loose as the song clocked in at just under twelve minutes. As the finale, Winwood went all the way back in his musical career as he played “Gimmie Some Lovin’,” a song that went to number one forty-nine years ago for The Spencer Davis Group. A bouncy number drenched in blue-eyed Soul, it was a great way to end the night as the crowd could not keep their collective feet still. Neto laid down the riff on guitar as Winwood made his way back behind the organ where he delivered a rousing vocal on the fast-paced rocker. While the original release came in at just over two minutes, proving to be a radio friendly smash, at The Space, the band extended the track with an extended solo on organ, and a few extra runs through the chorus, with plenty of help from the eager crowd. The song allowed Winwood to bring the proceedings full circle, opening and closing the show with tracks from his beginnings.
To call Winwood a musical genius would be to short change the man. Besides being proficient on numerous instruments, he is among the greatest when it comes to piano/organ, and unbeknownst to many, a world class talent on guitar. With a career spanning almost fifty years in Pop music, it is impossible for him to cover all of the hits and fan favorite album cuts from his storied career. However, because the pool to dive into is so deep and wide, his live outings are a journey through forty plus years of popular, diverse music, and more impressively, varied and diverse styles. Music lovers who are looking for a night of complex, dynamic music that somehow manages to inspire both dancing, singing along, foot tapping, and the occasional head banging, Steve Winwood is the man to see.