Winwood's soulful tenor, solid musicianship stir Merriweather Post crowd

June 20, 1991|By John Price

"We're going to take a little journey back in time," Steve Winwood told his approving audience last night at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Mr. Winwood and a crack five-piece band -- the best he's played with since he and Eric Clapton fronted Blind Faith more than 20 years ago -- did just that, performing two hours of music that revisited all the highs of Mr. Winwood's three-decade career.

Too bad Mr. Winwood's no longer the draw he was at the height of his pop stardom in 1988, when he last played here. While many of the songs were the same, last night's show was superior in every way to the performance three years ago -- a mannered, lackluster affair in which the suspender-clad Winwood came off like a yuppie Vegas act.

Never much of a showman, Mr. Winwood has returned to what he loves best: Expertly playing six instruments while making his soulful, aching tenor soar above the music. The closest he came to showboating was his guitar jam on "Split Decision," which ended in a standoff between him and bassist Michael Rhodes.

Recordings of 1960s Memphis soul played on the public address system before the concert, both revealing Mr. Winwood's influences and setting the tone for what was to follow. After opening with a pounding version of "I'm a Man" and immediately shifting into his 1980 hit "While You See a Chance," Mr. Winwood divided the show into three segments.

First came songs from his latest release, "Refugees of the Heart." Next were Traffic classics, during which old film clips of the band, projected on screens at the sides of the stage, served to distract from as much as enhance the music.

Finally, Mr. Winwood got the audience on its feet with such recent hits as "Roll With It" and "Higher Love." A final encore of "Gimme Some Lovin' " proved that "classic rock" can still sound fresh and exciting, even if the song is older than most of the people in the audience.

Warren Zevon, substituting for original opening act Joe Cocker, gamely played his 1970s cult hits, including "Werewolves of London."

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