Last night, during the middle of a 95-minute performance at the State Theatre, Steve Winwood, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose remarkable career includes stints with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Faith and Go in addition to a successful solo career, said he was happy to play in Cleveland, a city he called "the home of rock 'n' roll." "But I've never been sure that we played rock 'n' roll," the Rock Hall Inductee admitted. "It's a bit of jazz and other things too."
It might not have been rock 'n' roll in the strictest sense, but Winwood's performance, which centered on the hits of his career, had plenty going for it as Winwood and his terrific four-piece backing band regularly showed off their musical chops.
Winwood isn't a particularly flashy frontman. Wearing an untucked button-down shirt and black pants, the bespectacled Winwood looked more like a math teacher than a rock star. At the show's start, Winwood and his bandmates matriculated to the stage with little fanfare. The house lights were still on as they sat at their instruments and ripped into the Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man," a song that started with an ominous organ riff and included some Santana-like rhythms thanks to adroit percussionist Edwin Sanz and equally skilled drummer Richard Bailey.
Winwood switched to guitar to play Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home," a tune that featured a jazzy intro. The song, one of the best in Winwood's catalog, had a majestic feel to it, even if Winwood struggled to hit the high notes. A bluesy version of Blind Faith's "Had to Cry Today" and Traffic's "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," a track which featured a spacey mid-song jam, followed.
The set came to a close with two of Winwood's biggest hits from the '80s: "Roll With It" and "Higher Love." His rendition of "Roll With It" sounded bluesier than the studio version, and Winwood began "Higher Love" with a bit of church-like organ that gave the song a gospel feel.
A three-song encore began with the folk number “John Barleycorn.” Accompanied by bandmate Paul Booth on flute, Winwood and his daughter Lilly, who opened the show with a set of tepid folk-pop tunes, delivered the song in all its sparse glory.
Winwood and Co. then plugged back in to deliver a rousing rendition of Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy." One of the show's many highlights, the classic track included a hefty jam and a fierce guitar solo. Winwood appropriately capped off the encore with the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin,'" a song that had the capacity crowd on its feet clapping and singing along to the exuberant "hey" that's part of the song's chorus.
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