Traffic Jam

(Pictured: Steve Winwood dressed with a bit more color at Red Rocks in Colorado last fall than he did in Milwaukee on Sunday night.)

Last Sunday night, we went to the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee to see Steve Winwood. We’d seen him once before, in 2003, on one of the grounds stages at Summerfest in Milwaukee, but since then, I’ve become a far bigger Winwood fan than I was 12 years ago. My laptop music stash includes tons of Traffic, official releases and bootlegs, and as much of Winwood’s other work, in groups and solo, as I can lay my hands on. So I was a little better equipped to appreciate him Sunday night.

If you go to a Steve Winwood concert because you liked his hits in the 80s, “While You See a Chance” and “Roll With It” and “The Finer Things” and the like, you’re going to be disappointed, because he doesn’t seem particularly interested in playing those songs. In 2003, he did “Back in the High Life Again,” and on Sunday night, he closed the main part of the show with “Higher Love,” but they were the only songs from his 80s catalog. It’s clear he’d rather play stuff that lets him and his bandmates stretch out—and nothing’s better for that than songs made famous by Traffic, one of the original jam bands. So he opened with “Rainmaker” and played “Pearly Queen,” “Glad,” “The Low-Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” and a blazing version of “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” that allowed each band member a lengthy solo. Guitarist José Neto and multi-instrumentalist Paul Booth really stood out—at one point, Booth was playing a keyboard with one hand and holding a sax in the other, periodically blowing a couple of notes in the midst of providing backing vocals. Another time, he was alternating soprano sax and tenor sax on the same song.

When Winwood strapped on a guitar, Booth moved over to Winwood’s keyboard spot—and when Winwood strapped on a guitar, the highlights of the show followed. He did a terrific plugged-in version of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and he burned through the solos on “Dirty City” that were originally played by Eric Clapton on the 2008 album Nine Lives. But his best moment was on the first encore, “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” in which he and the band reduced the theater to a smoking pile of rubble. Then it was a quick segue into “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and the show was over barely 90 minutes after it had begun.

Give the man credit: he must have grown sick of playing “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Gimme Some Lovin'” long, long ago, but far from going through the motions (as he did on “Gimme Some Lovin'” when we saw him in 2003), he seemed to be fully engaged in both of them Sunday night. In 2003, he barely spoke to the audience or acknowledged us before disappearing backstage at the end. This time, he was more talkative, and he seemed genuinely pleased by the ovation the band received while taking its bows at the end.

The Riverside was built in 1928 and renovated in 1984. We’ve seen several shows there in the last four or five years, but honesty compels me to report that the sound isn’t always great. We would have appreciated a little more attention to mixing—the one thing that should never be swamped at a Steve Winwood show is the organ, and it often was—and a little less volume. But the venue is easy to get to, easy to get around in, and in close proximity to many fine bars, so it’ll always be a favorite of ours.

Winwood’s daughter Lilly opened the show, as she’s doing for just a couple of shows this week. She was born in Nashville and relocated there in 2010 to pursue her own career in roots music. She played half-a-dozen songs, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. She sounds like she’s still figuring out a style, but that’s OK. She’s 19. Her old man had it figured out by the time he was 19 (in 1967), but not everybody’s Steve Winwood.

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