Traffic-ing the classics: Steve Winwood digs deep for Durham

by Ryan Snyder

It’s almost unfortunate that Steve Winwood’s appearance during the Super Bowl pre-game show might have been his introduction to tens, maybe hundreds of thousands. Even performing his 1986 number one single “Higher Love,” Winwood might have seemed out of place while performing the massive tailgate on a bill populated by the instantly more recognizable Queen Latifah and Chris Daughtry. Many who saw him, regrettably, also might not have been very impressed. The NBC live feed compressed his sound within an inch of its life, parsing his vocals out in front like one would a one-dimensional pop star while his brilliant backing band came off flatter than Peyton Manning’s spirals. Based on that performance, the imitable voice behind the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith sounded staler than this year’s crop of ads. Hopefully some of those viewers made it to Winwood’s date at the Durham Performing Arts Center only two days later, otherwise they might have missed one of the greatest rock voices of all time in top form. It’s easy to forget that Winwood rose to popularity amidst the British Invasion; he looks and sounds far younger than many of his contemporaries, due in part because he is several years younger. In 1963 a 14-year-old Winwood joined the Spencer Davis Group, where his imitable high tenor soon became the voice of white-boy British funk and R&B. Little has changed with Winwood’s skill set. His voice is but a smidge more reserved, but its clarity is eternal: You can understand just as few of his lyrics now as you could then.

In all seriousness, Winwood is just as accomplished now as he has ever been. The Durham date opened up a five-show mini tour and while he’s performed fairly recently with horns, backup singers and extra synths, the current Traffic-style set-up of dual percussion, guitar and one hell of a multi-wind instrumentalist produced a set of career spanning

tunes faithfully. The night was bookended by a pair of Spencer Davis group classics, with large helpings of lead-bottom funk in between, a rather unorthodox approach for a band with no bass or brass. Winwood opened the night behind his Hammond B-3 with the lesser-known hit “I’m Your Man” before moving to guitar for the Blind Faith classic “Can’t Find My Way Home.” Wind man Paul Neto was not only brilliant on alto and tenor sax and flute, but he filled in admirably on organ while Winwood showed off his own instrumental abilities.

Despite the show being nearly two hours in length, it felt far shorter thanks to the band’s tendency to push nearly every arrangement to its temporal brink. The funk-forward “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” tipped the hourglass at nearly 15 minutes of fastpaced soul and boogie, allowing everyone in the band to take the spotlight before bouncing it back to Winwood for a quick refrain.

Winwood touched on every era of his career, though his extensive solo catalog was limited to “Dirty City” from his most recent album Nine Lives and the obligatory set-ender “Higher Love,” a song that sounded thin without the studio cut’s robust horns and backing vocals. His last chart-topper, “Roll with It,” failed to make the setlist along with “Back In the High Life,” but most of the near-sold out DPAC crowd seemed to want the classics.

As low points go, however, “Higher Love” went down smoothly during an evening where Winwood worked hard to present new angles to his bountiful canon. The abbreviated lineup was perfectly suited for the psychedelic jazz vibe of a Traffic two-fer “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” and “Empty Pages,” though half of Winwood’s accompaniment got a break during a highly economical encore of “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” backed only by the drummer Richard Bailey and Booth on Hammond again.

But what about the other half of that Spencer Davis Group bookend? Of course it was the one that started it all. “Gimme Some Lovin’” saw the entire band back out for another go, with Winwood informing all that he was so glad we made it with the unforgettable piano hook that only a 14-year old British boogie-lover could have conceived. Despite the unfortunate exclusion of some of Winwood’s most beloved works, including “Glad” and the oft-requested “John Barleycorn Must Die,” it was an inspiring reminder of just how great one of pop music’s most accomplished savants can be. Winwood trusted his audience to allow him to explore the many outer reaches of his career while still leaving a few tasty morsels unserved.

Steve Winwood, formerly of Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith and Traffic, shows he still has the goods in a recent performance at the Durham Performing Arts Center. (photo by Ryan Snyder)