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Monday, May 14, 2012

Steve Winwood @ The Riverside Theater

May 11, 2012

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Steve Winwood had much to celebrate when he played to a near-capacity crowd at the Riverside Theater Friday night. It was the first show of his new tour and the eve of his 64th birthday—and by evening's end, he proved just why he has endured in a number of genres within the music business since he started singing as a teenager.

In fact, he opened and closed the one-hour, 45-minute show with his early soul roots with the Spencer Davis Group. "I'm a Man" was as timely as it was nostalgic, belying the music legend's graying hair (hey, at least he has a head full). The close was just as rousing, as "Gimme Some Lovin'" brought young and old alike to their feet, swaying to the beat.

In between, the founder of such seminal bands as Traffic and Blind Faith led a stellar quartet of band mates through classics that still resonated with the brilliant musicianship that has marked Winwood's career.

Winwood is not one to pander to crowds' demands for the hits. His choices are as precise as each note that's played. So, it was a rare treat to hear a stirring, spine-tingling version of the Blind Faith classic "Can't Find My Way Home," which showcased Winwood's mastery of the guitar, the solo breaking waves against the spiritualized vocals. Winwood sought higher ground—and found it—with a jazzy, progressive version of the Traffic prog rocker "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," its hauntingly familiar piano refrain juxtaposed against delicate acoustic guitar. After seven minutes of intergalactic musings, Winwood and company segued into "Empty Pages" from John Barleycorn Must Die.

The band played a spirited version of Traffic's "Light Up or Leave Me Alone," showcasing the group's individual talents (and there are many) on guitar, drums, percussion and woodwinds.

Milwaukee audiences got the rare opportunity to hear one of Winwood's biggest solo hits, "Higher Love," stripped down from the studio version (no Chaka Khan backing vocals, alas), which brought the song's upbeat message of the search for love within.

And if that wasn't enough for the Winwood fanatic, the first encore brought the past straight to the present with "Dear Mr. Fantasy." An exuberant Winwood clearly was happy as he rocked out on his guitar, and the fans, standing on their feet and cheering wildly, were all the better for seeing a musical genius enjoy it all.