When Island Records founder Chris Blackwell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was sure to make a “special thanks to Steve Winwood, whose association with the label gave us credibility with many artists that made us successful.”
Steve Winwood equals credibility. He is the real deal—a musician’s musician. Steve is an artist who can go into the studio and create music all by himself – as he did with his million-selling Arc of a Diver.
Not only does he play all the instruments (drums, guitars, keyboards, mandolin, and of course, his voice), but he is also a master of one of the most challenging instruments to play; the Hammond B3 Organ. For those unfamiliar, the Hammond has three keyboards. One for each hand and one for the left foot for the bass line. Most Hammond players in rock don’t even bother with the foot keyboard; it’s too hard to play. I would like to see one of the other notable one-person bands in rock, Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren, Pete Townshend, or Prince, have a go at the B3. The point is the man is talented.
Winwood is also a gifted songwriter. Give me Some Lovin’ with the Spencer Davis Group, Can’t Find My Way Home with Blind Faith, Low Spark of High Heel Boys with Traffic, While You See a Chance, Higher Love, and Roll With It as a solo artist. His songs have covered the full range of rock, from familiar pop tunes to jazzy jams, from ethereal ballads to his most recent Latin-flavored compositions. He has won Grammy, been a sideman for Hendrix and Clapton, and performed for the Queen. No wonder he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The music machine producing the Jonas Brothers, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga doesn’t have room for an artist like Steve Winwood (and others like him). His two most recent releases, About Time, and Nine Lives, are mature, original works by an artist in full possession of his powers. It is some of the best pieces of his career. If you were a fan of Traffic and Blind Faith, you would like these collections where players stretch out a bit. Steve’s mastery of the Hammond is on full display. While neither may be considered a five-star CD independently, you get very close when the best of both are combined.
The opening track on About Time, Different Light, introduces us to Steve’s new rhythmic sound and critical collaborator, guitarist Jose Neto – the constant on both records. Neto brings something unique to the Winwood party – his nylon string sound and solid rhythmic focus that blends chords with arpeggios that compliment the Hammond. Cigano (for the Gypsies) may be the best example of this collaboration, with its excellent samba middle break and a terrific solo by Neto against B3 Leslie-flavored swells. The Timmy Thomas remake Why Can’t We Live Together (redone by Sade as well) is timely in its lyrical content while showing the versatility of former Santana drummer Wilfredo Reyes Jr. who injects a Latin feel with timbales and congas through the entire CD (Domingo Morning a showcase for congas). With Sylvia’s eleven-minute CD closer, the band plays in a way that shows the group’s formidable chops. Great composition, with a great Hammond and an excellent slow-build solo by Neto that crescendos in sync with Reyes’ drums and the rest of the band. This is the kind of song you’d hear on WNEW through headphones in the seventies. Put it next to Low Spark in the slow loose jam category. Classic in concert – check it out on the DVD Sound Stage- Steve Winwood in Concert. Awesome!
Oh, and every solo line by Winwood on the Hammond is hummable and melodic.
Nine Lives is a more polished affair. The engineering and sound of the CD are remarkable. You have to listen to it. The songs are primarily over five minutes, but there are fewer solos, with rhythmic interludes taking up some of the solo Time. There is a Latin flavor (Hungry Man), some folk (I’m Not Drowning), Steve playing lead guitar (We’re All Looking), and a guest appearance by Eric Clapton (Dirty City). While Clapton’s playing is fiery, Winwood’s rhythm guitar dominates that track. It’s a real show stopper when they trade Stratocaster solos on the recent tour (some of this captured on the DVD Live at Madison Square Garden). One forgets just how good Steve is on guitar. It is the ballads (Fly and Bristol Shore). However, that is extraordinary. This is where it all comes together, Neto’s nylon sound, the Hammond, the rhythmic complexity created by the band (Incognito’s drummer Richard Bailey infuses each song with complex poly-rhythms and tasty fills), and Winwood’s instantly recognizable angelic tenor. A great effort here.
In these days of pop stars who can’t play instruments or write songs, we should all join Chris Blackwell and give a special thanks to Steve Winwood – who does both exceptionally well.