Steve Winwood Offers Optimism

Steve Winwood Offers Optimism
Thursday, August 18, 1988

From its beginnings, rock-and-roll has promised that pleasure can be a kind of redemption. Steve Winwood brings that promise to the surface. His recent songs, most of them with lyrics by Will Jennings, proffer hope and self-help advice, urging listeners to roll with the bad times and seize the good ones. The music is built on piano and organ tones from hymns and gospel; verses describe an uncaring world in minor keys, followed by warm major chords when choruses bring optimistic tidings. At his Radio City Music Hall show on Monday night, the audience rose to its feet for the Winwood-Jennings song that could be a secular yuppie creed: ''While you see a chance, take it.''

Mr. Winwood has drawn on soul music since his teens, when as the lead singer for the Spencer Davis Group he delivered some of the richest, reediest vocals in British pop. With Traffic, in the late 1960's and early 1970's, he also dipped into jazz and Caribbean music. With his first solo album in 1977, Mr. Winwood began to smooth out and focus his songs to provide reassurance above all. His current hit, ''Roll With It,'' echoes his first Spencer Davis Group successes, but where the old songs were frantic with lust, ''Roll With It'' is reflective; it's also deliberately backward-looking, copying old Memphis soul instead of adapting it.

Since Mr. Winwood has returned to 1960's soul, it was natural for him to play his earliest songs alongside his recent ones. Monday's set was a 20-year retrospective that moved from one hybrid to another; only his choice from Traffic's catalogue, the jazzy ''Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,'' suggested that Mr. Winwood had anything but kindly thoughts for anyone. Although he is known best as a keyboardist, in the first part of the set Mr. Winwood also picked some terse, bluesy guitar solos. He is an unassuming performer who's content to let the songs carry the show. And they do; rolling groove after rolling groove, they filled the theater with nondenominational benevolence.