Rollin' with it

POP: Steve Winwood; Hanover Grand, London
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The Independent Culture
It's a get-on-down kind of night, and if you don't like what you're hearing, you'd just better button your lip. Arriving late to an intimate and overfilled venue (Steve returns later this summer to play Wembley) surrounded by vintage Bentleys, Jags and assorted rock star cars complete with chauffeurs, I muscle upstairs to the VIP area, the only place left to see from. It is chocker with Steve's family and friends. "I can see what you're writing," says one beautiful woman, brandishing a talon. "And it better be good." Sometimes, you wish you'd bothered to learn shorthand.

Not necessarily tonight, though, because what's going on is quite cool. There's an odd sense of the gravity-defying about little Stevie. At its best, his music is grittily uplifting, still all about the full-throttle sweat of R&B/psychedelia he pioneered (this is a man who can meld uncannily with a Hammond organ); and, though the chap's nearly 50, he still retains the quirky, slightly fey beauty of yesteryear. Some feat, since this is a rock 'n' roll baby who played big-band and Dixieland jazz at the age of eight, alongside his clarinettist dad, in the Ron Atkinson Band. By 12, on stage with his unfortunately nicknamed sibling, Muff, he was singing like Ray Charles on helium. At 16, he scored Staxy hits with the Spencer Davis Group; in his twenties, doped out of his mind, he was mixing prog-rock and psychedelia in Traffic (remember "Hole In My Shoe", all about a big albatross?). When he finally found a solo career, he made radio-friendly AOR credible with "Valerie" and "Higher Love", white-soul nonpareil.

The new album, Junction Seven, looks good on paper, with contributions from Narada Michael Walden, Jim Capaldi, Nile Rodgers, Lenny Kravitz and Des'ree. On CD, to be honest, it's a disappointment - slightly bland variations on 1986's Back in the High Life. In his natural habitat, however, a cramped and smoky club, Winwood made it move. The sound was flattened by the Hanover's low ceiling, the band - all at least half his age - were technically proficient, but multi-instrumentalist Winwood fired the set. He kicked off with "I'm a Man", soaked in brass and Hammond B3, his voice - half Marvin Gaye, half Roland Gift - scratching against the police siren wails of two cat- like Diana Rosses.

New tracks were buzzed up with salsa, Philly and jazz-funk, and sounded pretty much as good as what you'd come hoping to hear: the arch romance of "While You See a Chance", the edgy R&B of "Keep On Runnin'" and "Gimme Some Lovin'". He must've played this last song a time or two, but its hypnotic, insidious riff still makes him contort his face in an orgasmic, lip-biting rictus. I don't think he was the only one.

Glyn Brown