Saturday, December 27, 2014

Steve Winwood: Before He Went Yuppie

Before the '80s, no one would have dared utter the phrases "Steve Winwood" and "credibility problem" in the same sentence. As far as most people were concerned, Winwood, no matter what band he was playing in, was one soulful, tasteful dude. Steve Winwood was like the Eric Clapton of keyboards. And like Clapton, the material on which his legacy was, is, and forever will be based was not actually released under the name "Steve Winwood." Many have been the Generation X-er to hear someone talk about "how amazing Eric Clapton is," only to think, "'Lay Down Sally'? 'Wonderful Tonight'? That shit really ain't that amazing." No, no, no, it's the earlier stuff, man. The Yardbirds, Cream, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers ... you had to be there. And so, by the same token, allow me to briefly but informatively explain how another one of Britain's '60s rock legends completely lost his edge and rode the one-way train to Yuppieville.

Whether or not the world wanted a 15-year-old British Ray Charles, the world got one. Calling Steve Winwood's first band "the Spencer Davis Group" was a bit like calling the Jimi Hendrix Experience "the Noel Redding Experience," but they probably didn't know what they had on their hands (and it was probably best to not put too much pressure on the kid - not that he seemed to care). There were other Spencer Davis Group hits in the UK, but the two that most people remember are "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm A Man" from late 1966/early 1967, prime examples of wild, gritty white guy R&B that are right up there with ubiquitous oldies from the Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds, and Them. Brace yourself ... for the Hammond B-3 organ:

Yes, Steve Winwood was going to kick ass and take names. But then the Summer of Love hit, with all its incense and sitars and tie-dyed toilet paper, and Winwood had other ideas.

I'm talking about Traffic. At first, Winwood wasn't necessarily the "leader" of Traffic, but that's quickly what he became. Traffic are one of those bands that nobody really dislikes, but they don't have the hipster cache of contemporaries like the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd. They weren't overly pompous or self-important (like the Moody Blues or Yes), but they weren't very irreverent or aggressive (like Roxy Music or The Move) either. Oh come on, we're talking about a great era here, and Traffic recordings couldn't help but be soaked in that era's special glow. I'm not sure how many highlights I want to post. Should I go with debut single "Paper Sun"? Surreal jungle adventure "Forty Thousand Headmen"? Surprisingly effective stab at British folk-rock "John Barleycorn"? I think I'm just going to do two lengthy ones: 1) 1967's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" (with a "Hey Jude" coda, a whole year before "Hey Jude"!) and 1971's hypnotic eleven-minute progressive rock excursion "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys." Light a candle, pull up a rug, and let your spirit wander:

Imagine only being familiar with Steve Winwood's '80s Top 40 synth-cheese, and then discovering this stuff. Welcome to my world.

Of course, smack in the middle of Traffic's existence, Winwood inevitably teamed up with Clapton, although the resulting group, Blind Faith, only lasted one album. But ... but ... it's Winwood! And Clapton! Ironically, I think my favorite Blind Faith performance wasn't actually released on that album. It's the "electric" version of Winwood's "Can't Find My Way Home," which showed up years later on his boxed set The Finer Things, and is now also on the Deluxe edition of Blind Faith, which also features four fifteen-minute songs named "Jam #1," Jam #2," etc. If you're wondering whether Winwood and Clapton could possibly jam too much, there's your answer.

I don't know why, since it was basically Winwood's show, but Traffic broke up in 1974. The man wandered in the wilderness for a little while. There was his jazz fusion period (Stomo Yamashti's Go?). Then, out of nowhere, he finally released his first solo album in 1977. AMG's William Ruhlmann writes:
Rock fans had been waiting for a Steve Winwood solo album for more than a decade, as he made his way through such bands as the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic. When Winwood finally delivered with this LP, just about everybody was disappointed ... That great voice was singing the songs, that talented guitarist/keyboardist was playing them, and that excellent songwriter had composed them, but nothing here was memorable, and the long-awaited debut proved a bust.

It doesn't sound all that bad to me, but no, the late '70s were simply not Steve Winwood's time. He needed a new decade, one with the numeral "eight" in it, to truly shed his artistically legitimate past and forge a new, schlockier identity.

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