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Steve Winwood Wows 'Em At The State Theater


March 7th, 2018

Popular music icon Steve Winwood brought his considerable talents, a five-piece backing band and even his daughter to Playhouse Square's State Theater last night.

The sold-out crowd was taken on a musical journey of Winwood's fifty-plus year career in the space of a little less than two hours.  

Starting the evening with Winwood's epic "I'm A Man," which he composed at the tender age of seventeen while emulating many of his idols such as Ray Charles, it only got more raucous from there.

Winwood's high falsetto has served him well over the years; his distinctive voice was an integral part of Blind Faith,  the short-lived The Spencer Davis Group, and, of course, Traffic. 

While introducing the band and thanking the audience for coming out last night, Winwood quipped, "We're a little Rock, and we're, uh, a little jazz.  I guess we're...", at which point he stopped,  shrugged his shoulders and let the crowd decide into which genre the blue-eyed soul singer actually fit more snugly.

And, perhaps, that's 100% true.  Winwood has defied classification from his earliest days and last night, the influences of Afro-Cuban rhythms could be heard in his longer versions of "Roll With It" and "Higher Love."  His early influences ever-present, Winwood paid homage to his roots with long-form jam sessions through most of the evening.  After all, when does a meager twelve song last for almost two hours?

The evening was billed as a Greatest Hits Live tour and, while his early days were very-well represented, his later solo era was, unfortunately, glossed over.  Hits such as "Valerie," "When You See A Chance" and "Back In The High Life" were conspicuously absent from last night's set list. While those years were ignored, the longer versions of "I'm A Man" and the encore tune "John Barleycorn Must Die," one of Traffic's biggest hits, made up for the exclusion of the later stuff.

"John Barleycorn" featured Winwood center stage, flanked by daughter Lilly and her prodigious alto, and a single band member on the flute.  It was a haunting rendition of the old English folk song and, perhaps, the highlight of the twelve-song set.

As cliched as this may sound, Winwood's tenor has aged like a fine whisky.  Approaching seventy years old, the crooner's voice may not be as strong as it once was; his daughter Lilly projected much more forcefully during "John Barleycorn," but the timbre of his sound has turned this pop music royal into an Elder Statesman of the form.


It's given me solace that audiences come out in force to catch these legacy acts.  I spoke with Colleen at the Music Box last week and she was ecstatic that Ladysmith Black Mambazo sold-out at her Flats west-side venue. She was also inspired because the Mongolian Throat Singers were a huge draw a few months ago.  

What do they have in common with Steve Winwood?  Not much, perhaps, but it speaks volumes about Clevelanders and their willingness to support all types of musical acts and genres.  


Roll with it, baby.

Review and Photos by Brian M. Lumley

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