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Winwood, Yes, and Grand Funk

By Brett Milano

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  If you've seen the Orpheum schedule lately, you might think you'd picked up a 20-year-old list by mistake: Steve Winwood, Yes, and Grand Funk Railroad all within a 15-day stretch? True, the same two weeks saw the Rolling Stones at Foxboro Stadium, Fleetwood Mac in the Top 10, and Bob Dylan rising from the dead. But there's a thin line between classic rock and oldies; and the three acts who hit the Orpheum all tried, with varied success, to land on the right side.

Until recently Steve Winwood had the same respected-elder-statesman status as his former Blind Faith bandmate Eric Clapton, having scored big hits in the '80s ("Higher Love," "Roll with It") and made creative music in the '90s (on a little-noticed but musically solid Traffic reunion). But he got desperate on his latest album, Junction Seven (Virgin), and linked up with hit producer Narada Michael Walden for a set of easy-listening soul that has precious little to do with his hard R&B/blues roots. His '80s albums may have flirted with this approach, but this time the entire disc sounds like a beer commercial waiting to happen.

That didn't keep him from playing 10 tracks from the new release at the Orpheum a few Sundays ago, in a show that started great (with the time-honored "I'm a Man" and the 1980 hit "While You See a Chance") but took a fast downturn. The 49-year-old Winwood was in fine vocal shape, and he remains a master at both guitar and keyboards. But he was backed by the kind of slick band he could have assembled by canvassing Berklee an hour before the show. They had no feel for the left turns and spaciness in his best material, especially the night's two Traffic songs, "Glad" and "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys."

The latest incarnation of Yes didn't make the same mistake -- they played only two new tunes (both catchy, neither epic) in a two-and-a-half-hour set, even though they're releasing two new albums before Christmas. (The first, Keys to Ascension II, is a live/studio double recorded last year; the second, Open Your Eyes, is the serious comeback bid.) The band had a sense of purpose that they've lacked since their hardcore prog-rock days in the '70s. The latest round of personnel changes has left them without Trevor Rabin -- who steered Yes in a mainstream direction during the '80s -- and back with virtuoso guitarist Steve Howe, whom fans have forgiven for being a founding member of Asia. Even with a new keyboardist (Ivan Khoroshev, a Boston guy who was in Ben Orr's band) and an extra utility man (Billy Sherwood, an LA metal type who plays rhythm, sings harmonies, and looks confused), Yes still have four-fifths of their peak '70s line-up intact.

And unlike the '80s Yes, this version doesn't try to excuse or disguise its art-rock inclinations. Out went most of Rabin's commercial material (even "Owner of a Lonely Heart'" was progged up with a long, Howe-led outro); back came the multi-part epics, including "Heart of the Sunrise" and the Simon & Garfunkel adaptation "America." Khoroshev hasn't found his footing yet, mostly replicating Rick Wakeman's old parts; but the contrast between Jon Anderson's elfin voice and the band's complex clatter is still the key to Yes's sound. The real tipoff for diehards was "The Revealing Science of God," a 20-minute tune that was the first side of the 1974 double album Tales from Topographic Oceans -- an album that's come to represent '70s prog at its most excessive. It stood as an example of the sound Yes can make that other bands can't: a little creaky from the years on the shelf, but still a thing of real beauty and grandeur.

Nobody ever said that about "We're an American Band," one of many oldies that Grand Funk Railroad dusted off last Saturday at the Orpheum. Touring for the first time in 22 years, Grand Funk have the same audience (big hairy guys), the same line-up (ditto), and the same repertoire. When they ran out of obvious choices (after only 85 minutes), they went home. Ringo Starr's manager, David Fishof, was responsible for putting Grand Funk back together, and the night had the same nostalgic feel of a Ringo tour. After the appropriate "Time Machine," singer/guitarist Mark Farner asked the crowd, "How many of you own that record?" Big applause. "How many of you were just 12 when you bought it?" Bigger applause.

Grand Funk have some claim as forefathers of heavy metal. But their real contributions to rock were catchy tunes and boneheaded sincerity; and both were enough to make this reunion worthwhile -- at least for one night. The quasi-meaningful hits ("Closer to Home") and the bubblegum hits ("The Loco-Motion") were dished up with equal fervor, for a crowd that had seemingly waited since high school for one more chance to sing along. Never too tasteful a band, Grand Funk can at least still do what they did in their heyday -- namely, come to your town and help you party it down. Assuming you need help.

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