One can attend "An Evening With Steve Winwood" - at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 6, in Symphony Hall - and expect to hear the featured performer's considerable collection of commercially successful singles that have spanned nearly a decade's time.
But there's more to the British rocker than a fistful of hits in recent years. Winwood is just three years shy of three full decades of rock and roll - rock music that has to be considered on the creative cutting edge.There have been highs - starting out as a teenager with the R&B-styled Spencer Davis Group back in the mid-'60s and coming up with hits like "Gimme Some Lovin' " and "I'm A Man." Playing alongside the likes of Eric Clapton and Dave Mason in the late 1960s, with the former as part of the short-lived mega-group Blind Faith and the latter with Traffic.
And there have been lulls - spending the '70s in the studios as a session musician, aiding the efforts of other artists.
"It was a difficult time for me," recalled Winwood during a telephone interview from Nashville, Tenn., where he keeps his home when he's not in Britain. "There were a few changes in the music industry, with punk rock and disco. I wasn't quite sure where it was going, and I wasn't quite sure where I figured into all that."
He took his studio experiences seriously and started the 1980s strong with a successful solo album. "In `Arc of a Diver,' I applied what I had learned. It was commercial - but not by design," said Winwood.
"Arc of a Diver" spawned his first big single, "While You See a Chance, Take It." Winwood took his chance, and seemed to take more cues from the titles of other subsequent hits - "Back in the High Life Again" and "Roll With It" - en route to a pair of Grammys and a trio of platinum albums.
Winwood's current U.S. tour - a 10-week, 50-show trek across the States that he kicked off last Sunday in Seattle - is his first tour since the summer of 1988, a quick visit to Japan notwithstanding.
The infrequent roadwork is fine with Winwood, who finds it difficult to write on the road and prefers studio work. Finishing his "Refugees of the Heart" album late last year, he has since wrapped up the associated promos and videos.
Winwood sees today's music industry as a commercial commodity, tightly controlled by producers, music companies and radio stations. By comparison, musicians during the 1960s and early 1970s enjoyed more artistic freedom and fewer commercial-oriented restraints.
"It was probably there, but with early rock 'n' roll a packaged commercial product wasn't absolutely necessary," he said. "I'm very lucky because of having started so long ago. I don't fall victim to that as much as a lot of new artists, who have more difficulties."
"Refugees" is a return to the roots for Winwood, who refers to his latest effort as a throwback to an earlier time. "More longer musical passages, more longer songs - a Traffic kind of thing," he said. "It's perceived arguably as less commercial, but I'm extremely pleased. It has something the '90s definitely needs - it has longevity."
What else do the '90s need? "A little bit less of following the trends and a lot more individualism. A little bit more of atmospheric music - not so much commercial efforts directed toward a certain need."
He points to the proliferation of college rock and adult-alternative radio stations as an ongoing move away from the pop-o-rama, commercial culture. "A lot of bands and artists . . . are stepping back to look at the past."
Few artists today have the past to draw on like Winwood. "I'm probably the same age or older and have had more experience with hit records than a lot of the producers and executives," he said. "I hold a certain amount of say and influence with what I do."