Taken from WickedLocal (June 04, 2012)
Steve Winwood, Michael Franti, Boston concert
by Jay Miller
It's a little bit difficult to sit and contemplate when you've been jumping around for an hour. That's about the only criticism we'd have about Saturday night's Steve Winwood concert at the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston, where a close-to-soldout crowd of about 5,000 reveled in one hour-45 minutes of Winwood's classics.
Winwood's dozen-song set was slanted heavily towards his 1960s' Traffic output, which accounted for five tunes, as well as his signature song from 1971's Blind Faith supergroup, "Can't Find My Way Home." His most recent album, 2008's "Nine Live," provided another handful of songs, but the middle period between those '60s hits and this decade got short shrift. Of course when music fans think of Winwood they tend to focus on his groundbreaking rock-jazz fusion efforts with Traffic, or how his early work presaged the jamband era with its multi-genre excursions and intelligently crafted solos. Some of his '80s work might strike some purist fans as a bit too predictably poppy, or a little too soft-jazz, but "Higher Love" was a welcome entry Saturday, both for its infectious hooks, and compact energy.
Winwood, who turned 64 last month, was in vintage vocal form Saturday, and he and his backing quartet all performed near flawless renditions of those familiar old tunes. The only problem was that he was following an hour's worth of Michael Franti's boisterous, kinetic, singalong and dance-along r&b, which may be sometimes too simple, repetitive in places, and geared to younger audiences than the Boomer-centric crowd at the pavilion Saturday night. (As a friend noted when Franti kept exhorting the crowd to join him in gleefully pogoing to the music, "this is a Winwood crowd: they're going to hurt themselves if they jump.")
Nonetheless, Franti's music is pure energy, aimed at promoting communal joy, and his several jaunts through the audience had most of the throng firmly in his corner, and hopping around as best we could.So, when two of Winwood's first three songs were of the laidback jazz ballad variety, there was a palpable downshifting of the night's momentum. It seemed like we'd gone from a deliriously sweaty dance club, or a gospel revival meeting, to Symphony Hall in moments--not that there's anything wrong with that.
The deep funk workout on "I'm a Man" featuring Winwood's Hammond B-3 organ sheets of sound was an apt opener, but the jazz-funk ballad "Fly," with Paul Booth's delicate work on soprano sax and piccolo was too low key for that moment. It's a fine song, perhaps reminiscent of soul-jazz icon Les McCann's work, and it has a nice, hopeful lyric, but it just served to get everyone planted in their seats.
Another, more midtempo, number from that 2008 album "At Times We Do Forget" was, again a lovely piece of music, polyrhythmic jazz-funk with Booth on flute, and a sweetly affirming lyric. Winwood switched to guitar, with Booth taking over the organ, for "Can't Find My Way Home," and if we award extra points for re-working the old chestnut, we must also conclude that the easy-loping, wistful take Saturday night was just too mellow. Has anyone ever described a Cream song as too mellow?
Probably the best song of the night was the relatively new "Dirty City," a tune Winwood recorded for an EP in 2009 with Eric Clapton. That song skillfully melded rock and jazz, with Winwood's own muscular guitar grit one of the central pillars, especially a late solo that was all blazing melody and bent notes. The Traffic nugget "The Low Spark of Hi-Heel Boys" became a mini-concerto, starting with a jazzy aura in Booth's smoky sax intro, and progressing through the leader's mystical vocal, into harder edged funk territory, where guitarist Jose Neto crafted metallic fusion lines morphing back into Winwood's soaring organ. That tune was a dazzling ten minutes or so of marvelously creative musical exploration.
"Low Spark" kind of transitioned into another Traffic chestnut, "Empty Pages," where Booth's hypnotic soprano sax led the band eventually into a swinging r&b mode, as Winwood's endlessly soulful vocal carried the night. A surprising twist came when Traffic's "Light Up Or Leave Me Alone" turned into a 15-20 minute showcase for solos. The surging waves of organ chords led seamlesly into a rocking tenor sax solo, while the rhythm section of drummer Richard Bailey and percussionist Cafe Da Silva provided a Latin feel. Later on a Neto guitar solo touched on so many different tones you might've thought George Benson was dueling with Al DiMeola. Some parts were thrilling, but overall the tune just went on too long.
The organ and guitar interplay on "Higher Love" made it a real kick, and a couple choruses where Winwood's vocal was accompanied only by the drummers enhanced the song's infectious nature. For his first encore, Winwood re-appeared in a trio setting, playing guitar, with Booth on organ and Bailey on drums, for a tour-de-force psychedelic trip through "Dear Mr. Fantasy." That Traffic hit from 1967 featured mind-bending guitar, and Winwood's performance Saturday made clear the straight line from stuff like that to Cream a few years later. The old Spencer Davis hit, from when Winwood was a teenage prodigy, "Gimme Some Lovin'" closed the night on a celebratory note, and by then almost everyone was dancing again.
Franti's music can be a bit predictable, and even a life-affirming Peace-and-Love vibe like he promotes can be a bit over the top at times. Many of his songs rely on simple rhymes repeated over and over, in almost chant-like fashion. But the 46-year old Oakland native is such an engaging, relentlessly upbeat performer, and his music is such a feast of rhythms, that he's impossible to resist for long. An early segment in his hour-long set had him spicing up one of his tunes, "Tell Me Lies," with an insert of Steve Miller's "Space Cowboy" done funky style. The joyful "All I Want Is You" featured a brief hip-hop section that had the overwhelmingly white, suburban crowd bopping along.
Franti noted that his father was in a hospital in Salem, recovering from open heart surgery, and dedicated "The Sound of Sunshine" to him, a delightfully surging rhythmic stew where he raced up and down the aisles with his guitar, climbing on chairs here and there to lead the crowd in singing along. Franti's "Yell Fire" has some anti-corporate lines that made it an ironic choice for this venue, but the song's rock/funk energy, and the fact that Franti brought two fans onstage and outfitted them with guitars to mime playing along, made it great fun.
Who could sit still while Franti cavorted around the back of the pavilion during his absurdly infectious "Hey Hey Hey (Don't Let a Moment Slip Away)", or his reggae-tinted hit "Say Hey (I Love You)." For his finale, Franti brought some of his Boston-area relatives onstage for his new tune "Long Ride Home," and it turned out cousin Doreen is a powerhouse, gospel-style singer herself. That final song became a driving soul-rock march, with Doreen crafting a stunning coda of "Amazing Grace" that had the throng roaring at its finish.
Coming on the heels of such fire, Winwood just needed to get out of the starting blocks a little faster. And Franti is such a hard act to follow, he probably shouldn't be opening for anyone these days.