Steve Winwood Lifts The Bandstand
Drinking coffee after getting up late, the morning after the show, I recalled a cluster of psychedelic buttons for sale at the suburban head shop in my hometown fifty years ago, one in particular that read, “Clapton is God.”
At the time I didn’t know who Skip James (who wrote “I’m So Glad”), or Robert Johnson (“Crossroads”) were. I owned a copy of Fresh Cream, and a John Mayall record with Eric Clapton reading a comic book on the cover.
I saw Clapton a couple of times, in the 80’s when he surprised the audience during The Jack Bruce Band’s encore at the Bottom Line, then in Madison Square Garden for the 2005 Cream reunion tour, the audience a sea of aging fans like myself.
I missed a more recent Garden show, when Clapton co-led a band, but I found myself listening obsessively to one track from the resulting CD. Which is how I wound up in New Jersey a few nights ago.
“I’m like the youngest person here,” Jennilie said, peering around the hall. “Show me somebody else who’s under forty… under forty-five… under fifty,” she said.
The sixty-something man sitting on my left had little binoculars, as did the woman on Jennilie’s right. I felt like we were in a foreign land, twenty minutes by train from Manhattan, at NJPAC, the tastefully appointed performance hub in Newark, New Jersey. We sat patiently watching a man onstage move a microphone stand, and another man bring on some equipment, and a third reposition the drums.
With no fanfare, some other men walked on, one taking a seat at a Hammond B-3 organ. He began playing a jazzy figure. Was the show starting? The man began to sing. “Well, my pad is very messy, I got whiskers on my chin,” and unmistakably, Steve Winwood was in the house.
Winwood is a few years younger than Clapton. They’ve orbited one another forever, trading places on music magazine covers, packing concert halls, occasionally recording and performing together. They are Rock Gods.
“I’m a man, yes I am, and I can’t help but love you so.” Winwood’s voice is thrilling, clear and reedy, urgent. It rides above whatever instruments surround it, always the lead. The B-3 sounds as if it was invented to accompany his voice.
I admit I was a bit apprehensive, among all these old white people, like myself polite, seated, there to be entertained. Had I inadvertently bought tickets to a nostalgia trip?
I had not. I knew all the old songs, but Winwood’s energy was fresh, especially when he stepped from behind the organ and stood front and center with his electric guitar. Winwood is not a glib performer in his plain button-down shirt and sensible glasses. He wasn’t transported by his music. He was methodically creating it, and it was beautiful. “He looks good,” said Jennilie.
From up in the rafters, we peered down as he moved through his catalogue, the show smartly paced, bright highlights from each decade. After five or six songs, some guy was hollering a request, and another guy was bellowing another, but Winwood just kept offering up the music he came to play.
Then Winwood’s music inspired a guy in a red t-shirt stretched over his impressive gut to begin gyrating crazily, arms raised, weaving to the edge of center stage, and turning to inspire the audience. He shimmied toward the jacketed official coming to shoo him back to his seat, then veered back from whence he came. For once I wished that everybody would jump up and start dancing, so I could, too.
Reflecting the next morning, I was struck by Winwood’s humility, which got me thinking about Clapton, aka God. They were both teenagers when they became famous, and Clapton has known greater celebrity, had more hits. No disrespect, but Winwood’s music is better. I remembered how he talked about it, early on during his years in Traffic, his sound an amalgam of everything he heard and loved, jazz and traditional folk and rock and roll and American blues.
On stage, Winwood was self-deprecating about his Greatest Hits tour, thanking the audience for being there with him and his band, “so far from the big city,” he said. I peered at him through my own little binoculars (yes, I brought my own, what of it?) as his drummers took their solos, first the trap kit player, then the latin percussionist. Winwood gave both his full attention, from the shadows. He was listening.
His encore started with a meticulous acoustic rendition of his own English folk song, “John Barleycorn,” then peaked with a long electric solo during “Dear Mister Fantasy.” His music is unforgettable, but Winwood is anything but flashy. He doesn’t strut around putting on a show. His music owns the stage. The late jazz legend Steve Lacy described Thelonious Monk’s instructions to his band, to try and “lift the bandstand.” Winwood accomplished that all night.
“I wish Steve Winwood had his own Travelling Wilburys group, you know, some famous, talented musicians who wanted to make music together as a group,” I said to Jennilie. But who is Winwood’s equal, prodigious in talent and experience, still joyous about music, who doesn’t expect to be treated like a member of the royal family? Imagine Steve Cropper, Al Kooper, Van Morrison, Jeff Beck and Dr. John making music together, for music’s sake. I’d go to New Jersey for that.