In 1964, while just about everybody else was still learning how to be a musician, Steve Winwood made his first national appearances seemingly fully formed in every way: already, at 16 years old, a great blue-eyed soul singer, a lethal exponent of the Hammond organ and a fluent blues-rock guitarist. That precocity was both his great gift and, in a way, his handicap: he had less ground to cover in his adult years, and perhaps it made him less ambitious.
At Hammersmith Apollo on Wednesday night, on a rare return to London to promote a new live album, he began with “I’m a Man” and ended his encores with “Gimme Some Lovin'”, a tactic admission that he knew where the audience’s interests lay. In between came some lovely music that veered from hard-driving grooves to mellow reflection, assisted by a fine band: Jose Neto (guitar), Paul Booth (saxophones, flute and keyboard), the great Richard Bailey (drums) and Edwin Sanz (percussion). Some of the extended pieces — including a cover of Buddy Miles’s “Them Changes” — reminded me that Traffic, particularly in their expanded configurations, were a jam band as well as a songs band.
Lilly Winwood, Steve’s 21-year-old daughter, came with him from Nashville, where he has lived for many years, to play an opening singer-songwriter set which grew in confidence, despite the heat of the night making it a bit of a struggle to keep an acoustic guitar in tune. She returned to join the band for “Higher Love” and the encores.
Her dad’s voice has survived the years unimpaired: that slight straining in the upper register was always part of his soulful appeal. And, less than a year away from his 70th birthday, he retains the boyish silhouette of that teenaged prodigy who went off to get it together in a country cottage with his mates from the West Midlands, and the modest, unaffected charm of a man who held a special place in the affections of all Island Records employees in the 1970s.
I particularly enjoyed “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”, seated in a very typical chilled-funk Traffic groove, and the beautifully poignant “Can’t Find My Way Home”, a relic of the Blind Faith project on which Steve played a very interesting Telecaster solo much closer to a country picker’s approach than to his regular Stratocaster style, itself on double-helping display in “Dear Mr Fantasy”. I’d like to have heard “Walking in the Wind”, “While You See a Chance” and “Valerie”, but you can’t have everything. At the end of a too-short 100-minute set, the standing ovation from a full house was well deserved.
* Winwood: Greatest Hits Live, a box set of two CDs or four LPs, is released on September 1 on Wincraft Records. It includes “Walking in the Wind”, “While You See a Chance”, and many other songs not played at Hammersmith.