Wednesday, January 17 , 2018, 7:09 am | Fair 47º


Jeff Moehlis: Steve Winwood’s Winning Formula

After performing the Blind Faith classic "Can't Find My Way Home," which had him switching from organ to guitar for the first time in the evening, Steve Winwood told the wowed audience: "It's good to be here on this hot desert day."

Yes, it was a hot Friday night outside in Santa Ynez, but the cool grooves of Winwood and his band made it a night to remember at the Chumash Casino.

Winwood, at 69-years-young, has been making memorable music for more tha five decades. As a teenager, he co-wrote and sang "I'm a Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin'" as part of the Spencer Davis Group, songs which bookended the show. 

"I'm a Man" kicked things off with a groovy jam, and when the singing started, we were reminded that Winwood was blessed with a great voice as a teenager, and doubly blessed that it sounds virtually the same all these years later.

Winwood followed this with the smooth grooves of "Fly" and "At Times We Do Forget" from his latest studio album Nine Lives, an apt album name for an artist who has found success in different styles, decades, bands, and solo endeavors.

Things then got trippy with "Pearly Queen," off the second (self-titled) Traffic album, my personal favorite album in that underappreciated band's outstanding catalog.

Paul Booth's flute solo and Winwood's organ solo were particularly inspired on this one, making this the sort of "Traffic jam" you actually want to get stuck in.

Next up was an amazing cover of the Buddy Miles song "Them Changes," which included a funky, phased guitar solo by Jose Pires de Almeida Neto. Yep, Winwood is the star, but the rest of the band was also a force to behold.

The Blind Faith portion of the evening followed with the aforementioned "Can't Find My Way Home," then "Had to Cry Today" with a killer guitar riff and some awesome complementary guitar playing by Winwood and Neto.

Dare we say Winwood can rock out on guitar almost as well as that other guitarist from Blind Faith?

It was back to Traffic for the epic, jazz-influenced "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," arguably the ultimate showcase for the band's (then and now) uncluttered, improvised jamming.

This segued into "Empty Pages," followed by "Light Up or Leave Me Alone," which highlighted the players in the band and included some lightning-fast congas by Edwin Sanz and a drum solo by Richard Bailey.

The main set closed with "Higher Love," the only song in the evening from Winwood's 1980's pop revival, but here in a less polished, more groove-oriented arrangement. It's worth noting this song was co-written with local songwriter Will Jennings, who sometimes is seen around Santa Barbara.

For the encore, the Chumash Casino followed its wonderful tradition of letting people come up to the front of the showroom, which seemed to up the energy of the band.

We were treated to the psych gem "Dear Mr. Fantasy," and the stompin' "Gimme Some Lovin.'" It's amazing to think these two songs, both cool but in very different genres, were co-written and originally sung by the same person in the space of a year or so.

Such is the talent of Steve Winwood. He sings soulfully, he plays a mean organ, he plays a mean guitar, he improvises, he leads an amazing band, he writes R&B songs, he writes psychedelic songs, he writes jazz-influenced songs, he writes pop songs — and he puts on a memorable show.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, The opinions expressed are his own.

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