At almost 67 years of age, Steve Winwood, set to play two dates in New York — at the Space at Westbury on April 23, and at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester the following night — is living proof that age is indeed only a number. And in Winwood’s case, it’s a sweeping setlist filled with hit numbers.
Born May 12, 1948, in Birmingham, England, to a father who played the saxophone and clarinet and encouraged his son’s musical dreams, Winwood, a former choirboy, studied music in school before he began a wildly successful professional career that at this point spans more than five decades. Now living in Nashville with his wife and children, Winwood is as relevant as ever. No, he’s not promoting a new record. And, no, it’s not an anniversary for one of his past works. But he’s on tour. And he’s Steve Winwood. So get over it. Winwood’s exhaustive catalog is reason enough to see why he’s playing these midsize rooms — both venues seat fewer than 2,000 — at this time.
A prolific musician, multi-instrumentalist, and singer-songwriter, Winwood — who has earned three honorary doctorates and two Grammys — was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with rock band Traffic) in 2004 and Nashville’s Walk of Fame last year. If ever there was a musician who is synonymous with versatility, Winwood is he. With a repertoire that includes rock, jazz, pop, soul, blues, and r&b, he has been a key member of several renowned British bands. Ever the collaborator, he played keys on Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and lent his keyboard expertise to country star Miranda Lambert’s hit “Baggage Claim.” Winwood has released nine studio albums, with his most recent record, the aptly titled Nine Lives, reaching No. 12 on the Billboard 200 chart shortly following its 2008 debut. That same year Rolling Stone placed Winwood at No. 33 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
But Winwood’s earliest success actually dates back to his teens. What might ultimately have turned out to be a case of beginner’s luck was clearly not luck at all. Winwood was just a teenager when he had his first hit song, “Keep On Running,” with the Spencer Davis Group, which had him performing as its guitarist, vocalist, and keyboardist when he was fifteen years old. He was able to keep running along that successful path with the band, giving the Sixties more classic hits, including “Gimme Some Lovin’ ” and “I’m a Man,” with Winwood’s Ray Charles–influenced vocals giving the songs their soulful dimension.
By the time Winwood turned eighteen, the Spencer Davis Group had disbanded. After a stint playing with guitar legend Eric Clapton in the short-lived blues project Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse, Winwood ran right in to Traffic, a psychedelic rock band he formed and for which he co-wrote hits including “Paper Sun” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”
Reuniting with Clapton, Winwood then formed supergroup Blind Faith and wrote the soulful, emotionally naked folk-hit ballad “Can’t Find My Way Home.” The tune has been covered by a slew of artists across a variety of genres, ranging from Bonnie Raitt to Joe Cocker to Sneaker Pimps. It has also been used widely in soundtracks, having appeared in a variety of television programs and the films Benny and Joon and Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine biopic Without Limits.
Once the Seventies rolled around, it was finally time for Winwood to do the solo thing with his self-titled debut. It was his second solo record, 1980’s Arc of a Diver, on which he played all the instruments, that yielded his first solo Top 40 hit, “While You See a Chance” (co-written with Will Jennings).
And while mindfulness, yoga classes, and green tea dominate our modern landscape, Winwood’s music was spiritually infused long before it was in vogue. As a juxtaposition to the materialistic excess of the Eighties and its often synthetic pop, Winwood’s music, as evidenced by “Higher Love” — his best-known hit, from his fourth solo record, Back in the High Life, with backing vocals from Chaka Khan — was imbued with messages about a powerful and exalted love that expands way beyond romance. “Think about it/There must be higher love/Down in the heart hidden in the stars above/Without it, life is wasted time,” sings Winwood, who won the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal for the song (in addition to Record of the Year). He followed up with another hit single, “The Finer Things,” and James Taylor and Joe Walsh made guest appearances on the record, which Winwood co-produced. While you’re at it, add “Back in the High Life” and “Valerie” to Winwood’s Eighties hit-song list.
So if, after all of this, you remain skeptical of Winwood’s relevance as a touring act in 2015, in the words of the man himself, we suggest you shut up and “Roll With It.”
Steve Winwood plays the Space at Westbury on Long Island April 23 and Port Chester’s Capitol Theatre April 24. Ticket information is available here.
Pamela Chelin is an arts and entertainment writer living in Los Angeles. Follow her at @pamelachelin.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 22, 2015