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With a profile as long as the proverbial arm, having been originally snapped up by the Spencer Davis group as a teenager in the mid 1960’s, and getting towards clocking almost half a century in the music business, just where do you begin? Think back; by 1970 Winwood had played and not only with the Spencer Davis Group, but gone onto being the key player Traffic with not only his vocals but an impressive set of instrumental skills, before finally teaming up with Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton and forming the short lived (maybe not surprising considering the challenging nature of the   cover art of their only album) ‘supergroup’, Blind Faith. Having passed through various periods of his career where he’s added his distinctive vocal style to rock, blues and  psychedelia and was even  tempted into following the fashion in the synth dominated eighties. Even though his eighties musical stylings found AOR/MOR mass appeal and his sartorial styling was up there with the best and the widest of shoulder pads, there remains a vast catalogue to be explored.

Perhaps the energy of his more recent collaboration with Eric Clapton has reinvigorated Winwood to re-evaluate and celebrate his past. Even with  a couple of tracks from his most recent ‘Nine Lives’ album being aired early on,  there was a distinctively retro, albeit career spanning, feel to the evening’s entertainment. In fact, amongst his very few words to the audience in Salford (although he didn’t seem quite so sure where he was in relation to Manchester) Winwood confessed to having put together a ‘vintage’ set of songs for a ‘vintage’ audience, hurriedly adding,  “well, more of a mixed vintage” before he dug any deeper. Mind, it seemed like an audience who must have grown up with Winwood, who  at the age of 65, sported  a rather impressive set of mutton chop sideboards which give the only clue towards his advancing years. The angular chiselled features are now a little rounder and fuller than of yore but the trademark voice is still willing and able.  In fact, good money would be on those in the audience who were there in the sixties with the Spencer Davis Group and recall the original drive and excitement behind the timeless ‘Keep On Running’ and ‘Gimme Some Loving’ which took their rightful places at the end of the show while a lively take on ‘I’m A Man’, which followed the rather more mellow opener ‘Rainmaker’ completed the trio of almost expected  nods back to his teenage years. 

Backed by a crack band, with Paul Booth taking the honours with his contribution on various wind instruments and taking over keyboards on the few occasions Winwood stepped out front to play guitar on a couple of Blind Faith songs, there were moments of improvisation and extended playing from the band as they lined up side by side across the stage. At times it almost seemed like a soul show with all the players taking solos on Traffic’s ‘Light Up Or Leave Me Alone’ which grooved on for a good quarter of an hour and completed a mid show section which featured some of the highlights from the Traffic back catalogue (thankfully missing the more comic ‘Hole In My Shoe’ which for many will always conjures up images of Neil from The Young Ones and his novelty version of the song). Longer standing guitar partner, Jose Nero, with his gorgeously hand crafted instrument, proved a maestro of funk and lounge jazz chops which along with Winwood’s famous Hammond organ sound provided the backing and the rhythm for Booth’s exceptional solo playing.

Sitting behind his ornate wooden keyboard cabinet at the extreme left of the band, Winwood seems most content with his role as part of a band and makes very little attempt at all to make the most of his pedigree and throw himself into the spotlight – his contribution and reputation being as  a genuine  collaborator, sitting almost anonymously and taking obvious enjoyment in the way his band picked up and worked with the grooves. His only concession to his name taking star billing being a belated arrival to the stage after his band had made a subtle entrance and picked up the understated opening bars to ‘Rainmaker’.

From The Lowry, it would be next stop at Glastonbury’ Acoustic Tent and a return to an environment very much reminiscent of  his early Traffic days  where he and former partner Jim Capaldi embraced the philosophy of the times and ‘got it together’ in the country to compose those enduring songs. Alongside his peers which would include the household names of Clapton and Dylan, whatever his next steps might be, with continued songwriting and performing or a well deserved retirement, Steve Winwood has made sure he can be credited with having left a genuine legacy.

Review by Mike Ainscoe

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