|Steve Winwood played songs from his new album, "Nine Lives," as well as his hits. (Robert E. Klein for the Boston Globe)|
Five decades into making music, Steve Winwood still makes it look easy. That's how it should be, perhaps - master musicians deepen their artistry, refine their craft, continue to take chances, and build on a creative legacy. All too often, however, that's not the case, especially in the rock and pop worlds where stars are content to coast and rest on the laurels of their earlier, and inevitably better, work.
Even Winwood was prone to this kind of middle-career spread during the 1980s, a time when many of his '60s and '70s-era peers also settled into a bland routine of adult-contemporary hits, beer commercial soundtracks, and nerve-numbing Muzak for dentists' waiting rooms.
But you can't really blame a guy for wanting a hit, and Winwood had some big ones burned into our collective brainpans: "Higher Love," "Roll With It," "Back in the High Life Again." It's nice to be a critic's darling and a musician's musician, of which Winwood is both. But a hit pays the bills. And judging from the commercial success of his new Afro-Cuban-accented solo album, "Nine Lives," (it debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard charts), he's not done having them.
For two solid hours Thursday at Berklee Performance Center, the multitasking singer-songwriter, who was to receive an honorary doctorate from the school in addition to selling the theater out, offered a dissertation surveying his 40-plus years in the field.
Supported by a supple, percussive four-piece band comprised of guitar, drums, congas, and a flutist-saxophonist, Winwood delved deeply into the new material on "Nine Lives" but with his usual light touch. He opened with "Secrets" and performed all but one of the album's nine tracks. Unfortunately, that and a 10 p.m. curfew made time-stretching art-rock masterpieces like "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" unattainable.
Ultimately, the new material made for well-meaning, feel-good excursions in musical prowess. But the songs often felt too polite for funk, too tame to really catch a fire that matched searing, seminal workouts like Blind Faith's "Had to Cry Today," which featured Winwood stoking flames on electric guitar and dueling with his guitarist, Jose Pires de Almeida Neto.
What remained virtually unchanged and instantly recognizable from the old days, however, was Winwood's voice - a soulful contrast of sunlight and shade that was both ethereal and earthbound. It lent bitterly beautiful pathos to "Can't Find My Way Home," a hymnal paean to being lost in an emotional wilderness.
Winwood's B3 organ was just as sturdy, insistent in underscoring the ancient, urbanized blues of "I'm a Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin' " with bluster and bustle. Both were hits Winwood originally sang as a teenager for a British blue-eyed soul outfit the Spencer Davis Group and light years before he ever dreamed of getting an honorary doctorate degree.