- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

Youth will be served — but not tonight.

Saturday at the 9:30 Club, the North Mississippi Allstars — four young, blues-rock fusion players from the Magnolia State who opened for headliner Steve Winwood — showed why so many have christened them as one of the brightest emerging lights on the rock music horizon.

Some even see them as the latest standard bearers in the Great American Blues Revival. That seems a stretch, for while the Allstars’ performance showed that they still have one foot firmly planted in blues traditions, numbers from their new album, “Polaris,” show the band is stretching in many new directions.

They delivered an eclectic set that often sounded like Elvis Costello meets the Allman Brothers, punctuated with hefty doses of modern pop, rock and Memphis soul.

So what’s a band of young up-and-comers have to do to upstage a classic rock artist who had his first hit in 1964 — before any of them were even born? As impressive as the Allstars were, Mr. Winwood kept the rug firmly planted beneath his feet while demonstrating why he remains one of rock’s bona fide legends.

At 55, Mr. Winwood still looks about 35 and his voice and instrumental chops show no signs of wear. He has rightly been hailed far and wide as Britain’s best blue-eyed soul singer virtually from his first mid-1960s hits as the 15-year-old wonderkid of the Spencer Davis Group.

During his more-than-generous, three-hour-plus set (with no break), Mr. Winwood drew on his Spencer Davis days only once, for the final encore, “Gimme Some Lovin’,” which rattled the walls of the packed club and had girls climbing on stage to dance.

Mr. Winwood is touring behind his first new album in five years, “About Time,” a Latin-rock workout drenched in his Hammond B-3 organ and Brazilian musical seasonings. The concert band featured the two main players from the new album, Jose Neto on guitar and Walfredo Reyes Jr. on drums. Augmenting them was sax and flute player Randall Bramblett and conga player Edson “Caf” da Silva.

The band performed “Different Light,” “Cigano,” “Bully” and a cover of Timmy Thomas’ 1972 hit “Why Can’t We Live Together,” all from the new CD.

When playing numbers from Mr. Winwood’s days with Traffic, the ensemble was reaching for a balance, trying to remain true to the essence of the rock classics we know and love while infusing them with the new Latin-rock touches.

It didn’t always work, as on the lone Blind Faith number of the night, Mr. Winwood’s plaintiff ballad “Can’t Find My Home.” Likewise, the opener, “Pearly Queen,” sounded plain odd with the salsa touches.

But on “Rainmaker” — which morphed halfway through into a radically reworked, slowed-down jazz instrumental — and “Empty Pages,” the musical and rhythmic twists revealed some rewarding new dimensions.

The show reached a boil in the final hour, starting with Traffic’s classic jazz instrumental “Glad,” though it sounded a tad bit different with the main keyboard lines carried on organ rather than piano. Then it was on to “Freedom Rider,” and “Back in the High Life Again,” for which Mr. Winwood emerged from behind his Hammond and strapped on a mandolin.

Later, a superb “Dear Mr. Fantasy” (from the first Traffic album), featuring Mr. Winwood in a solo turn on a light-blue Stratocaster guitar, heralded the evening’s highlight. Alternating between searing lead licks and sustained power chords, Mr. Winwood finished the song with a flourish of bolero.

A hard song to follow, but they did, ending the regular set back at full force with a 20-minute version of Traffic’s jazz-rock opus, “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” on which Mr. Neto and Mr. Bramblett had a chance to shine.

Yeah, the kids were all right, but mark up this night for the old men.

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