Steve Winwood’s concert audiences can be divided into two distinct segments. One group loves the classic songs Winwood penned for the band Traffic, such as the epic “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.” The other contingent comes for Winwood’s 1980s hits, such as “Back in the High Life.”
The first camp will be enthralled by Winwood’s upcoming show at the Wells Fargo Center, which will include long instrumentals and improvisational explorations. The latter might not be as thrilled.
At Winwood’s 90-minute show at Oakland’s Fox Theater in late June, “Higher Love” was the only song he played from his pop heyday. But that didn’t diminish the show. A segue from “Low Spark” into “Empty Pages” was transcendent, as Winwood showed that his skills on the Hammond B-3 organ remain unmatched. And the encore of “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Gimme Some Lovin’ ” brought the audience to its feet, howling for more.
Winwood’s Aug. 9 concert will be his first appearance in Santa Rosa, according to the WFC’s website.
Winwood, 66, doesn’t divide his career into chapters of free-form rock and pop hits.
In 2011, he told the British newspaper Express: “Although I think there was a perceived change in direction (in the 1980s) ... I was still doing what I’d always done — trying to incorporate elements of jazz, rock, folk and ethnic stuff into the music.”
Winwood added: “Obviously, the ’60s was a time when everyone wanted to experiment, and then everything became very formulated and corporate, so artists tended to get pushed into a kind of pattern.”
A 15-year-old prodigy when he joined Birmingham’s Spencer Davis Group in 1963, Winwood wrote the mid-’60s hits “I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin’” for that band.
Unlike most teens who would have been glad to play in a successful touring outfit, Winwood felt constrained by the Spencer Davis Group. So, in 1967, he founded Traffic with Dave Mason to form one of the seminal album-oriented bands of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Mason played on only one album, then left — or was dismissed — from the band.
The following year, Traffic moved to Winwood’s newly purchased estate in Gloucestershire to write, record and be so far from neighbors that no one would complain about the noise. Rock legends such as Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix would drop by to hang out — Winwood would later play on Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.”
Even then, Winwood seemed like a country gentlemen — slender, retiring and somewhat reticent. He doesn’t deny using drugs but didn’t succumb to the excesses that took the lives of Hendrix, Joplin and so many other shining lights of that time.
“Although drugs were freely available,” Winwood told Express, “it wasn’t our mission to bring drugs to the world; we were there to bring music to the world.”
Winwood declined an interview request from The Press Democrat, saying through a publicist he’s not doing any interviews during this tour.
Traffic disbanded in 1969, after releasing its third album, and Winwood formed Blind Faith with Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker.
Dubbed the first “super group,” Blind Faith’s only album included such Winwood-penned songs as “Can’t Find My Way Home,” which he’s been playing during the current tour.
After the Blind Faith album, Winwood began working on a solo disk but instead decided to re-form Traffic, and the band released one of its most enduring albums, “John Barleycorn Must Die.”