During his more than 50-year career, Steve Winwood has been back in (and out) of the high life, and his latest offering, Winwood: Greatest Hits Live (Wincraft Records), shows why the iconic singer’s voice is one of rock music’s finest treasures.
This is his first release since Live from Madison Square Garden (Reprise Records) with Eric Clapton in 2009 as well as his first solo collection of concert recordings on CD. The 23-track set features a fine assemblage of material from his vast oeuvre, with choices covering his early days with the Spencer Davis Group and on through to Traffic,
Blind Faith and his solo excursions.
A slowed-down, melodic approach to the performances works best with several Traffic numbers — “40,000 Headmen,” “Rainmaker,” “Medicated Goo” and “John Barleycorn.” A more recent number that is well represented is “Fly,” which originally appeared on Winwood’s underrated Nine Lives from 2008. This is the longest cut on the collection at just under nine minutes, with several tunes topping the seven- and eight-minute mark.
If not for the sparse sampling of crowd noise, many of the cuts could be mistaken for studio constructs (leaving one to wonder how much Auto-Tuning and overdubbing may have been involved). There’s little guidance from the liner notes as to where and when these tracks were recorded, so it’s hard to get a measure of time, place and distance. With only photos to offer a reference, most of the shows appear to be from the past 10 years and include Winwood’s long-time touring band.
The initial cut, the Spencer Davis Group hit “I’m a Man,” is given a stripped-down rendering with almost no hint of the driving dynamic of the original. The same can be said of “Gimme Some Lovin’,” enhanced by Winwood’s proficiency with the Hammond B3 organ. After playing these songs in concert for many years, it is understandable why Winwood decided to tinker with their arrangements.
The Blind Faith classic “Can’t Find My Way Home” benefits from drummer Richard Bailey’s locked-in beat and some subtle guitar work by Jose Neto and Winwood.
The band’s rendering of “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” is a highlight, showcasing Paul Booth’s excellent saxophone playing (reminiscent of the late Chris Wood’s work with Traffic), with Winwood compressing the song into a suitable, less-meandering length. The instrumental “Glad” is carried by Winwood’s keyboard playing and Booth’s smooth sax and flute interpretations. Booth and Winwood also work their magic on Traffic’s “Empty Pages,” with Neto and percussionist Edson “Cafe” Da Silva adding just the right embellishment.
The Winwood solo hit “Back in the High Life” is reworked to great effect and given a balladeer-like interpretation (with Winwood on mandolin) that would have fit in well with the 1970 Traffic album John Barleycorn Must Die. A funky version of “Arc of a Diver” (the title track from Winwood’s 1980 comeback album) as well as “While You See a Chance” (from the same album) are also delivered flawlessly. “Freedom Overspill” and “Roll With It,” both major Billboard Hot 100 hits in the late 1980s, appear in bouncy, danceable renditions.
Credit must be given to Winwood’s production skills and for his measured, slowed-down, refined presentation of the song selections. He lets all his bandmates shine, without anyone overshadowing the album. Naturally, what rises above all else is Winwood’s soulful, silvery vocals, which can still cause the hair on the back of the neck to stand up. Turning 70 next year, Winwood shows no signs of slowing down, and his busy concert schedule offers hope that there’s still more music to come.
— By Donald Gavron