Steve Winwood, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

Sometimes Live appearances are, like a football match, a game of two halves. Kicking off just after 8pm, Winwood and his mostly youthful band of skilled journeymen ushered in the strains of "Pearly Queen", from Traffic days. He would alternate for the rest of the evening between Traffic and post-Traffic material. This formula revealed that, like his audience of largely balding or silver-haired men of a certain age, Winwood had not greatly developed musically since those Traffic years: indeed, his earlier tunes were largely more interesting, being more emotionally complex and full of effective contrasts.

In a largely lacklustre first set, Winwood ventured from behind his Hammond B3 just the once, preferring mostly to give us a goodly taste of his inimitable vocal skills on such pieces as "Empty Pages", the old blues "Crossroads" and "Freedom Rider". Unfortunately, he also saw fit to hand over regular slots of extended soloing to the band's guitarist and reed-player, who had not an original musical thought between them.

But the first half did have a slow, moving version of "I Can't Find My Way Home", on which Winwood handled all guitar duties. The set was then completed with "Glad" and "Freedom Rider" from Traffic's John Barleycorn Must Die album, the former running on empty until Winwood's brooding Hammond solo on the diminished-seventh-chord tag of that song.

Half-time was filled with hopes that things would get better. It did. "Talking Back to the Night" opened the second set, the guitarist getting off a controlled solo that was his best of the evening. "Higher Love" had the entire audience singing along happily. Another anthemic Traffic composition, "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring", followed. Winwood, smiling and looking very pleased with things, joined in the hookline with gusto, but the hook lingered for close to five minutes, dissipating its effect.

A punchy "Keep on Runnin'", reaching back to Spencer Davis days, restored the atmosphere and presaged the evening's most haunting music, a slow version of "Back in the High Life (Again)" that featured a long electric-mandolin solo by Winwood. It had everything the other guitarist's solos had lacked: continuity, ideas and elegance of phrasing. Like most of Winwood's guitar-playing, it was simplicity itself, but the ideas and the feeling behind them were consistently powerful. As if to ram the point home, there followed a magnificent guitar solo on a very slow "Mr Fantasy" that brought the house down. Winwood dispelled the effect with an overlong "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" to close proceedings, but by then the second set alone had run for 90 minutes, leaving little scope for overtime. Two and a half hours of music from a man possessed of little stage presence but enormous musical gifts should preclude cavils, but a trimming of the sidemen's solo space might tighten things up in midfield.

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