There are not too many musicians treading the boards today with careers stretching back five decades but Steve Winwood at 70 still has the enthusiasm of a teenager when he straps on a Stratocaster or digs in with his Hammond Organ along with a talented band of colleagues. Support for the evening Gary Clark Jr was last seen in Bonn during Santana’s concert here, but is a highly rated guitarist in his own right.
A great evening of Music was guaranteed then at Kunst!Rasen this week.
May 3rd is officially Gary Clarke Junior Day in Austin, Texas. That says a lot for the esteem under which today’s support musician is held. Indeed, as far back as 2011 America’s ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine voted Clark ‘Best Young Gun’ in its yearly poll, so he’s not really a ‘secret’ anymore. A certain Eric Clapton is said to have been re-inspired to pick up the guitar after hearing Gary Clark Junior. It would be difficult to think of a testimony to the Man’s talents that would trump such a statement.
Needless to say then, I had high expectations as Gary Clarke Junior stepped quietly behind the microphone before a gradually filling Kunst!Rasen crowd at the early time of 6.30 pm. Clearly Clark was being given a full set according his rising status. So why did I feel a little disappointed an hour later? There’s no doubting that the man is a grandiose guitar player, with a great feeling for soul-drenched Blues and a hypnotizingly wide vocal range. The set kicked off in fine deep-bluesy style too with the slow grinding ‘Catfish Blues’.
Somehow though, the gear-stick never really changed for the next hour excepting for a frenetic change of pace almost at sets end on ‘I Don’t owe you a thang’. The up in pace was a welcome one that brought jubilant cheers as Clarke finally put his Gibson SG through it’s Rock paces. It was to be short lived jubilation though as drummer Johnny Radelat was back to soft shuffle beats even before the song had ended. Frustratingly it was really the only time that any dynamics entered the set. ‘Next Door Neighbor Blues’ had moments of mean and dirty guitar but the atmosphere never seemed quite to catch fire at it briefly did again.
That’s not to say that the music wasn’t high quality. Clarke’s high falsetto on ‘Our Love’ with it’s shimmering 60’s sound was mesmerizing, but more grit would have been welcome. Maybe it was a bit too early in the evening for both Clark and audience, maybe it was the lack of volume to pump the rhythm out. Maybe, maybe… If only Clarke wasn’t so damn popular these days I would love to see him in a smaller setting like Bonn Harmonie.
What can you say about an icon of British music? Steve Winwood has a set-list to call on that stretches back five decades. Despite this though the show turned out to be bookended by songs from Winwood’s 60’s days with Spencer Davis ‘I’m a Man’ and the evergreen ‘Gimme Some Lovin’, sandwiched in between a delicious spread of classics from Winwood’s days with legendary musicians like Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker.
The challenge when you make music with a supergroup like ‘Blind Faith though is how do you find people to match such legendary musicians? You need to have an excellent band of course. With the men onstage tonight that challenge was clearly well met. Guitarist Jose Neto even has a documentary film made in his honour titled ‘The Man Behind The White Guitar’. I loved his melodic sound on headless nylon string lead guitar. Perhaps it was down to being Brazilian, but Neto’s Jazz influences gave the music an extra rhythmic dimension.
Every good Rock Band should have a good sax player at their disposal in my humble opinion and Paul Booth does a fine job too, even covering for Winwood when the latter takes a break from his Hammond Organ to pick up a Stratocaster and remind us that he’s a pretty mean ‘Fender Bender’. If Clapton was really God in the old days, then Winwood may well have been his second in command. Certainly, the smile on his face when he plays shows that Steve Winwood enjoys the change of instrument. Just a glimpse of the grin on his face soloing during ‘Can’t Find MyWay Home’ is proof that he was having as good a time as the 3000+ bobbing heads in the audience was. Not that Winwood is any slouch on that Hammond Organ either – Hendrix had him play the instrument on his legendary ‘Electric Ladyland’ disc. Fifty years on he still commands the rhythm despite having drummer, bass and bongo players present.
With such a talented band onstage this was an evening to be enjoyed by Jazz fans as much as classic Blues and Rockers. ‘Them Changes’ with its Funky beat and short but unforgettable sax riff was contemporary Jazz Heaven. ‘Had to Cry Today’ has an equally short sharp riff that sticks in the head. Both numbers had Clapton written all over them of course and Winwood’s vocal is very similar to that of EC and as powerful as ever (maybe because Winwood isn’t playing so many shows these days – this was the only German show on the Tour).
‘Dear Mr Fantasy’ rocked us into the first encore and ‘Gimme Some Lovin’, followed to prove the longevity of great songs and tunes. Written in 1966 the song saw a new lease of life with the Blues Brothers and I doubt that anyone can hear it today without thinking of Jake and Elwood.
A new lease of life might also be an apt description of Steve Winwood himself on the evidence of his obvious enjoyment of tonight’s show. There is a concert lined up in London’s Hyde Park on Sunday (8 July) for both Clarke and Winwood, together with a gentleman named Clapton who is likely to get all the headlines. Steve Winwood showed though tonight in Bonn that his part in British Music History is a major one and that, even if there are no really new songs to hear, his old classics in the hands of an excellent band are truly timeless. Gary Clark Junior was maybe rehearsing for that show where he will be able to test his considerable talents alongside Clapton and Santana.