By Richard Amey
December 11, 2008
Being born to sing is talent specific and generous enough. But also to play several instruments, stringed and keyed and vocalise at the same time, is special – let alone to compose superb material to boot.
But when full organ is the main one of those instruments, you have a phenomenon in any sphere of music.
Brummie Steve Winwood threw off writing and singing top 10 hits with the Spencer Davis Group from the age of 15.
He played Hammond organ then, so at the age of 60 this year, "after all these years" it is easy for us to take for granted that he plays with both hands, fills the absent bass guitar player's role with his left foot on the pedal board, and controls the volume with his right – and still with the apparently intact blues-soul voice that has tingled spines since the 60s.
Being born to sing? Taureans can't help it. It's the great vocal star sign and Winwood shares it with another English singer from the almost exactly same stable and with a similar versatility– Sheffield's Paul Carrack. Both are in this nation's top rank at what they do.
Music keeps one young, and Winwood, from the stalls seats, scarcely looked older than 40. His longevity allows him the luxury of crowd-pleasing nostalgia and of the 14 songs filling two unbroken hours, eight were from his 60s and 70s days in SDG, Traffic and Blind Faith. And he finished with two encores more than 40 years old.
Mr Fantasy he sang, played and soloed on pale blue Fender Stratocaster, accompanied just by his wind player Paul Booth deputising on organ and his kit drummer Richard Bailey. Then multi-percussionist Karl Van Den Bosch and guitarist Jose Neto rejoined them for Gimme Some Loving.
If one were puzzled or cynical that the richest "second period" Winwood material of the 80s and 90s was represented by only one number – the big hit Higher Love, from Back In The High Life – one needed to legislate that his "third period", that began with his About Time album in the middle of this present decade, is a return to live music making from his 20 years of mainly isolated solo studio creating.
The key to this modern phase is Latin American rhythm and percussion that is now as much Winwood's modern style as world music became Peter Gabriel's influential stamp. That is why Van Den Bosch is there, but the firelighter in the music is now 53-year-old star man, Neto.
He's Brazilian. Like Pele, he has a full name – Jose Pires de Almeida Neto. He has a beautiful sculpted Paradis guitar by Swiss luthier Rolf Spuler. On show this night was his natural wood one, although he also picked up a white Strat for some numbers, which visually broke the spell a little.
He is an exceptional rhythm guitarist, and also the main mover in the act because the rest of the band are tied either to seats or a microphone. And with bandana and broad-striped trousers, he is a magnetic visual presence and and a solidifying one musically.
Winwood discovered Neto at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London and he is a jazz player - but fluent in other styles, including in the studio using classical guitar. Like several top experts such as trailblazers Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck, he does not use a plectrum.
He contributed several key-point solos of different kinds, which threw into relief the dated guitar work of Winwood himself. Of course, that was never Winwood's arresting bowstring, but he gave a full-bent guitar hero account on Mr Fantasy.
Different Light, ironically the only cherry picked from About Time, had kicked everything off. I'm A Man (SDG) maintained the pace and led into Hungry Man, one of three tracks from the new album this year, Nine Lives.
The congas of Van Den Bosch and the ever-varied rhythms of Nato pervaded and drove the evening, and that instrumentation opened up welcome updated takes on all the older material, bar Mr Fantasy. The arrangements were free with lots of room for improvisation, and there was bags of colour and attack from Booth's tenor and soprano saxes, flute and low Celtic whistle.
An ultimate irony, the Spencer Davis Group were due soon in town, with the Troggs, on their retro show tickets. Winwood is a long way on from that.