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Published: 2003/10/17
by Chad Berndtson

Steve Winwood, North Mississippi Allstars, Orpheum Theater, Boston 10/8

It was smack dab in the middle of one of Beantown's hottest musical weeks in recent memory. Our beloved BoSox were on their way to duel the Yankees for the ALCS, R.E.M. had spanned twenty years with a blistering Tweeter Center outing on Sunday, and THE Al Kooper had sat in with, of all bands, the Black Keys last night at the Paradise. With healthy doses of String Cheese Incident and Mule set for the weekend (not to mention upcoming Mike Gordon, Soulive, PLF and Bisco to boot), my last minute decision to take a buddy up on his offer to see the legendary Steve Winwood seemed like a good bit. Strolling into the Orpheum, which, like the Paradise, becomes a second home to true Boston music lovers after a long while, I sat back, relaxed and hoped for some solid renderings of vintage Traffic in the midst of what would no doubt be an 80s and 90s-heavy Winwood show.

Boy, did the term underestimate ever accurately describe this night. I knew Steve Winwood was one of the new, unofficial "ambassadors" to Jam Nation from the annals of classic rock, but I had no idea that he and his band would charge forth through two and half magical hours that easily bested most shows I've already seen this year. By the time it was all over, I was out of breath, staring in disbelief that the aging and let's face it, bizarre Winwood could deliver so mightily.

First things first however. Opening act North Mississippi All-Stars brought a few stragglers quickly to their seats and out of the beer line, kicking things off with their seismic brand of swampy blues rock. In spite of the fact that their latest, Polaris, was a sub-par descent for this band, they have honed their live show considerably over the past two years and tonight, looked downright comfortable playing before a theater sized crowd. Luther Dickinson has evolved from a budding slide attacker into an all-out virtuoso gunslinger, cranking out solos that would make even the true guitar heavyweights tingle with bluesy resonance. The band has wisely (finally) decided that Luther is the core player, and now that they have that center, the other three can finally stretch out and hone their own roles. With Polaris NMAS may have hit a creative wall but the group should easily survive it. Big things ahead for this crew.

Though his high-pitched vocals are a bit raspy these days, and his timing slightly off, Steve Winwood is a consummate improvisational performer. A gracious host to a sold-out crowd, he and his band sailed through a musical panorama that spanned his entire career. Setlist architecture was among the best this reporter has ever encountered: the classic Traffic and Blind Faith nuggets visiting like old friends in the midst of a sampling latter day tunes.

"Pearly Queen" came roaring out of the gate to open, and already, the signs were evident that Winwood's touring band (which includes multi-instrumentalist and southern jam scene heavyweight Randall Bramlett) could hold it down with any classic rock or modern jam ensemble out there. The solo baton got passed around frequently, and although Bramlett and ace guitarist Jose Neto were far less reticent, Winwood eventually began to stretch out on the Hammond B3, firing off blues licks and expressive arpeggios. The show had a hard time finding its momentum through "Different Light" and "Ciganos" (both off of Winwood's excellent 2003 offering, About Time)improv was hot, but had trouble finding a common threadbut by the time the band arrived at the first of many Traffic nuggets, "Empty Pages," all misgivings about the band were instantly dashed. A dynamite version of Traffic's classic diatribe on writer's block and emotional turmoil brought the first of many standing ovations from the crowd.

It became evident early on that Winwood is still a fine player, but it's the band as a whole that makes his live experience a transcendent one. Bramlett, whose best work is on sax although he's no slouch on keys, flute or percussion, smoked through solo after solo: a ponderous, drawn-out progression on here, a smoking, back porch scorcher there. His contribution to the "Glad > Freedom" jam was one of the night's major showstoppers, a spirited exercise in rhythm and shuffling. And while Neto plays the roles of lead guitarist and improvisational foil with equal, talented candor, drummer Eduardo "Caf34; DaSilva and percussionist Walfredo Reyes are holding it down with controlled recklessness. Combined, especially given the Latin, world beat flavor of many of Winwood's 80s and 90s work, they recall the mighty percussion line of the Santana band.

And last is Winwood, himself, who in addition to offering up B3 work stormed through a mind-blowing, Roger Gilmour-esque guitar solo during "Dear Mr. Fantasy," only minutes after he had cranked out a gorgeously restrained mandolin improvisation in "Back in the High Life." Even "Higher Love," Winwood's excruciating pop nugget, took on new life, as the percussionists upped the tempo and grooved it into near-samba and fast reggae territory. Following "Love," one fan turned to me and whispered with a chuckle, "Do we forgive a formally great artist for his latter day sins?" Oh, don't even front, you High Fidelity-quoting boob…you may think it's wet toast pop, but you were dancing along like everyone else.

All of the band's strength combined as one for the set-closer, the inevitable "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," which was 20 minutes of pure psychedelia. Though Winwood and Neto cooked and simmered during the extended solo section, it was again Bramlett who captivated. He began his solo by tickling his lower register on the tenoreliciting a tone as beautifully haunting as the bottom of the oceanand by the time he arrived back in his more comfortable mid-range, he was on fire.

Perhaps the one set compositional misstep in the whole show was the first of the two-song encore, About Time's "Why Can't We Live Together?" After a long encore break, it's slow drawl about a broken relationship nearly killed all the momentum from the "Fantasy" and "Low Spark" workouts. But the band quickly roared back to life with the seminal Spencer Davis Group classic "Gimme Some Lovin'" again an improvisational high water mark and funkier than most recorded versions.

All in all, a stellar show that reached unanticipated moments of sheer psychedelic virtuosity. Steve Winwood seems to be enjoying his new "jam world" ambassadorship, and quite frankly, he can stay as long as he likes.

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