Steve Winwood | Bobby Long
May 14, 2012
Peabody Opera House
As go case studies in paying respects to the elder statesmen of rock & roll, there are worse fates than fourth-row tickets (so what if they're far orchestra right?) to Steve Winwood at the Peabody Opera House. Unlike many of the retirement-countdowners in attendance, I never tripped out to Blind Faith or Traffic, and unlike some of my fellow middle-agers I didn't lose my virginity to Arc of a Diver (that would be Sade's Diamond Life). I have no history with Winwood, save that I know how hard the Spencer Davis Group could rock.
Could Winwood at the recently-turned age of 64?
Turns out he could, but not until after a short opening set by equally growled-out, somewhat overwrought singer and songwriter Bobby Long. Notorious among the audience's kids for his association with the Twilight soundtrack (he co-wrote a song for it), Long is a shaggy-headed chap with talent. His only widely-distributed album, 2011's A Winter Tale, had better songs than you'd expect from a 25-year-old, Dylan-in-workshirt obsessed folkie. Long stood lean and confident under the spotlight, strumming hard on every song, fiddling with his harmonica rack between tunes. He's yet to write anything that grazes the zeitgeist -- his best songs to date are literary set-pieces of war and wandering -- but he has time.
Under low house lights, Winwood made a modest entrance, strolling out behind his band -- Paul Booth (saxophones and organ), José Neto (guitar), Café da Silva (percussion) and Richard Bailey (drums) -- in jeans and a loose, uncuffed white dress shirt. The whole set was a casual Monday of long, as in we're-just-gonna-groove-a-while, jams and a smattering of hits, kicking off with one of the first, the Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man," a song that served as a reminder of Winwood's stature as one of the toughest Hammond B3 players you'll ever witness. The tune and the band caught fire instantly; there would be no bass player tonight, not that the sound of Winwood's organ, rumbling and grinding like a psychedelic machine, needed the low end. The tune was a mean and funky opening -- and then came the first gear shift, as Winwood headed straight into the pop jazz of "Fly" from the recent album Nine Lives.
It was the kind of transition that should never work, given the pretty noodling on soprano sax by Booth, the extreme lay-back of da Silva on the congas and Muzak riffs from Neto's ampersand-shaped electric guitar. And yet the grease-to-gloss slide suited Winwood, who just felt his way through the changes, letting that blue-eyed-soul voice, undiminished by time, carry the movement. Just ten minutes into the show it was clear he could still hit the blues hard and still sail through the schooner rock of his mid to later years.
By the time the Blind Faith song "I Can't Find My Way Home" arrived I was ready for the dreamy pop of something, anything, from his one-man-band triumphs of the '80s, Arc of a Diver and Talking Back to the Night. As hard as those songs were hit by radio decades ago, and still are by the soft-rock networks, they have a craft and sparkle that the progressive jazz rock he favored this evening lacked. "I Can't Find My Way Home" had plenty of soul, and never once came off as dated -- the same will not be said of "Dear Mr. Fantasy" -- and the extra-extended jam on "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" -- with da Silva, a major Brazilian percussionist, letting loose around Neto's fret-raking solo -- was impossible to resist. It was what the boomers wanted to hear, and Winwood knew it. If the same ingratiation was operative on "Light Up or Leave Me Alone," I couldn't tell. I had started to doze off after the first fifteen minutes of jamming. The Wide Spread Panic fans in the audience might have felt it, but along with sucking the life out of the set, the indulgence left no room for "Valerie" or "Back in the High Life" or "While You See a Chance." And no one was lighting up so no consolation of a contact high was offered.