Even though he has been the voice behind enough significant music to land him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice (Traffic, Blind Faith), Steve Winwood has never carried on like a rock star onstage or off.
That was the case Friday night before an excitable full house at the State Theatre in Minneapolis. Neither Winwood's vocals nor guitar work (yes, he played guitar about as much as he played organ) were assertive enough. Until the encore.
His rendition of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” was what fans had hoped for all night – passionate vocals and impassioned guitar playing. Then his band instantly segued into Spencer Davis Group’s ‘Gimme Some Lovin’” as Winwood headed to the Hammond B-3 organ and kept the crowd partying in overdrive.
What had preceded the encore was good but seldom great. The band was top-notch with guitarist Jose Neto and saxophonist/flutist Paul Bloom, the MVP, getting plenty of solo opportunities during the 95-minute performance.
The set list was heavy on vintage stuff by Blind Faith (“Can’t Find My Way Home”), Traffic (“Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” “Pearly Queen,” "Glad") and Winwood’s solo career (“Higher Love,” “Dirty City”). And there was a Neto-composed instrumental, titled “Facts,” that opened the set.
Too often Winwood’s voice seemed either weak or not forceful enough. Could the sound engineer have turned up the volume? Winwood’s guitar solos lacked drama and momentum until "Dear Mr. Fantasy."
Although the well-lubricated crowd was enthusiastic all night (loved the woman who plopped down in the aisle on the main floor for a song like she was on oriental rug in her living room), the band didn’t really get cooking until “Light Up or Leave Me Alone,” a funky workout that, like many of the tunes, stretched to about 10 minutes.
It’s too bad that it took Winwood -- heretofore boyish but now looking his age (66) with glasses and gray hair at the temples -- so long to shift into a higher gear