Steve Winwood, Shepherds Bush Empire, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Since he emerged as a 17-year-old fronting The Spencer Davis Group in 1965, Winwood has faced the perennial question: what becomes of the ageing boy wonder? Yet despite a notoriously shy character, his capacity to mount commercially successful comebacks throughout his career has been remarkable. "Little Stevie" may have been the teen sensation of his day, but precious few have ever risen to match his facility as singer, writer-arranger and multi-instrumentalist.

In his time, Winwood has accompanied Hendrix on his Electric Ladyland sessions, become a psychedelic adventurer with Traffic and added sheer class to the adult-orientated MTV market withBack in the Highlife and Roll With It.

After Junction Seven, his underwhelming 1997 collaboration with Narada Michael Walden, Winwood embarked on a period of reflection and the result has been a stripped-down approach, highlighted on the Latin-inflected new album, About Time.

It's the first time in 27 years that Winwood has dispensed with loops, synthesisers and bass guitar. This puts him firmly in the driving seat, and as he hammers the keys and pounds the foot pedals behind the Hammond organ on the opening "Pearly Queen", the band's compactness and agility provides a welcome cushion for Steve's fiery interjections.

The glow of a fresh awakening courses through the new album stand-out "Different Light" - the percussive tension, golden vocal and sizzling interplay between Winwood and his guitarist José Neto creates a rare blend of drama and dynamics. With the two-and-a-half hour show split into two halves, it becomes obvious that many of the new songs are primarily forums for Steve to play loose and free in jam-band style.

However, with a set that leaned a little too heavily on the new album, it was a relief to find the closing stretch filled with Winwood classics. Strapping on an electric mandolin, he did a gorgeous rearrangement of "Back in the Highlife" and tore into the showstopping "Dear Mr Fantasy".

The latter's reflection on fame and performing featured Winwood's spellbinding guitar, a sound of unfathomable wrack-ed beauty seemingly torn from the depths of his soul. To see him walk off afterwards, grinning sheepishly in checked shirt and khaki trousers, like a retiring country squire, seemed unreal.

But there's nothing unreal about Winwood's talent, one of the finest these islands have ever produced. About Time may not be about to "do a Santana" and put the Latin-coated latterday Winwood back in the chart highlife. But the rethink has allowed his creativity free rein and shows what happened to the boy wonder - he turned into a man-sized marvel.

Comments