Rock Roundup

Steve Winwood Can Still Thrill

Longtime rocker comes to Riverside. And James Hunter comes to Northern Lights.

By - Apr 13th, 2015 12:08 pm
Steve Winwood. Photo from facebook.

Steve Winwood. Photo from facebook.

Top Show: Steve Winwood at Riverside Theater, Sunday, April 19

Despite its inclusion in The Big Chill and its advancing middle age, this Spencer Davis Group classic retains its capacity to thrill:

When the song was released in 1966, its singer and co-writer, Steve Winwood, was 18 years old and already one of the most convincing purveyors of blue-eyed soul on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. He’s 66 now and has lost no more than a step on that voice.

Admittedly, he hasn’t kept a tight schedule since 1990, when Refugees of the Heart was the last signpost of a solo career that had been fairly active and lucrative since 1980’s Arc of a Diver. In the last 25 years, he’s put out just three more studio solo records, and the last of those was 2008’s Nine Lives.

Winwood isn’t against working per se: he gets out on the road every so often, happy enough to take support slots (as he did for Tom Petty at Summerfest in 2008) and now as genial a presence as he was an intense presence in SDG, Traffic, Blind Faith et al.

Geniality has been a mark of his overall solo career: hits like “Higher Love” and “Back in the High Life Again” were content without being self-satisfied, easygoing without being lazy. Even Warren Zevon recognized the craftsmanship, and a chance for deathbed irony, in “High Life” with his cover version.

Winwood is coasting in a highly listenable way, because Nine Lives showcases his continued ability to get maximum feeling out of restrained singing and playing. He doesn’t have anything to prove, yet he has the cool confidence of a guy who can prove he’s still got it, if challenged…or asked politely.


Wednesday, April 15: James Hunter Six at Northern Lights Theater, Potawatomi Hotel & Casino

James Hunter embodies two arguments music fans can always renew: one, whether old-fashioned R&B is just a nostalgia trap or a loving revival of a form more satisfying than its modern cousin; two, whether a white guy, and a British white guy at that, is truly soulful or just simulating the soul.

I think the Essex native is a genuine revivalist with access to deep feelings, and 2013’s Minute by Minute, his most recent album with his band the Six, proves that Van Morrison was right to keep an eye on Hunter and that Sharon Jones, whose authenticity nobody can seriously question, will never lack a duet partner if she needs one.


Wednesday, April 15: Shawn Mendes at Rave

While I understand how a singer might do as Justin Bieber did and parlay a popular YouTube account into exposure and the right contacts, I am less clear on how a singer might do the same thing with an account on Vine, which specializes in six-second videos. One tenth of a minute! Twitter seems comparatively long-winded.

However, Shawn Mendes picked up millions of views via Vine clips of chart hits, then got signed, then issued the single “Life of the Party” in 2014, and this week is putting out Handwritten, a debut LP with one track for each of his 16 years. And after a solo headlining tour, he’s opening for Taylor Swift this summer.

So what do I know?


Friday, April 17: Lyres at Cactus Club

If Boston hasn’t been a media-mobbed musical city, unlike Seattle or Detroit or especially New York City, it has nevertheless made steady contributions to rock ‘n’ roll throughout the music’s history. One of those contributions is Lyres, a pop-rock band that used to split its sound between the basement and the garage.

Started by Jeff Conolly in 1979 after another band, DMZ, broke up, Lyres had a flurry of recording and touring activity in the 1980s and, perhaps predictably, felt the energy flag when the rewards stayed punier than the efforts. Conolly hasn’t given up, though, and is currently raising funds to complete a new Lyres album.

It goes without saying this is a rare Milwaukee appearance.


Saturday, April 18: Pele at Cactus Club

The phrase “instrumental post-rock,” which has been used to describe Pele, has the unpromising ring of pretension; that was not how Pele itself sounded. During its first run from around 1997 to its announced breakup in 2004, the Milwaukee group tempered its artsy excursions with unmistakable accessibility.

Its members have gone on to great things like Volcano Choir and Collections of Colonies of Bees, which doesn’t mean it’s not good to have Pele back, because every musical experience each member has had since the first run can potentially be put into this show—its first in Milwaukee in more than 11 years—and make it different from memories of the olden days.

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