POSTED ON NOVEMBER 21, 2012:
A Masterful Balancing Act
A colorful career with a tour and vibrant live show
When thinking of Steve Winwood -- whose current tour stops at The Joint this Saturday evening, Nov. 24 -- it's hard for many not to think of him as an '80s pop master. Not only did "While You See A Chance" from 1980's Arc of a Diver land him in the Top 40 for the first time as a solo artist, his 1986 release, Higher Love, made him a staple of pop and rock radio throughout the rest of the decade and earned him two Grammy Awards in the process.
That success was extended as 1988's Roll With It and 1990's Refugees of the Heart continued his Top 40 roll and kept Winwood seated atop radio playlists into the early '90s. After that string of commercial successes, Winwood seemed to slyly slip out of the spotlight, reappearing only occasionally with new material and releasing only three additional solo albums since then.
To define Winwood by his solo career, however, would be to overlook a much larger and more diverse musical career that has spanned R&B, progressive rock, world-beat, and improvisational, jazz-inflected rock. Not only has he consistently been a highly coveted session musician over the course of his career, he has also partnered with a wide array of other musicians for a number of other projects over the course of a career that has now stretched into its sixth decade.
Winwood's first professional gig came as the keyboardist and lead singer of Spencer Davis Group, which he joined in 1963, at the young age of 15. Over the course of his nearly three years in the band, Winwood made an indelible impression on pop music as the voice of such hits as "Keep on Runnin'," "I'm a Man," and the now-iconic hit "Gimme Some Lovin'." By 1967, however, he felt confined by the strict, pop single format of the band and departed to form Traffic with guitarist Dave Mason, horn player Chris Wood, and drummer Jim Capaldi.
Traffic took Winwood in yet another direction, marrying his roots in R&B and pop with jazz, psychedelia, and British folk, creating another string of hits. Eventually, however, Winwood and Mason clashed over the direction of the group, which wasn't matching Winwood's original vision to be even more progressive and improvisationally oriented, and the band splintered by the beginning of 1969.
COURTESY/CREATIVE ARTISTS AGENCY
At that point, Winwood partnered with an old friend, Eric Clapton, and drummer Ginger Baker for what would become what many have called the first "supergroup," Blind Faith. The band only managed to release one album and get in a single tour before breaking up before year's end under the extreme pressure and expectations laid upon the group, but not without making a lasting impression with timeless hits like "Can't Find My Way Home" and "Presence of the Lord."
Another short lived reunion of Traffic followed as Winwood's initially planned first solo album turned into a group effort as he called in former members for what became John Barleycorn Must Die and the partnership included the band's biggest album, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, in 1971. After the group broke up again in 1974, he receded from the spotlight as a session musician until finally releasing his self-titled debut in '77 and finally making his mark with Arc of a Diver in '80.
Such has been the story of Winwood's career, as he struggled to balance his pop sensibilities with his desire to go in a more expansive and improvisational direction. Perhaps his 2001 album, About Time, hit the mark and finally allowed him to expand his reach beyond any expectations as it delved more into Latin percussion and world beat music, much like his brief partnership with Tito Puente and Arturo Sandoval, Latin Crossings, which never released an album.
Even though Winwood hasn't released new material on a regular basis for nearly 10 years, that doesn't mean he hasn't stayed busy. Winwood is still a coveted guest in the studio and his classic Hammond B3 (organ) playing was recently heard on Miranda Lambert's "Baggage Claim."
Moreover, Winwood has continued to tour regularly and partner with old friends. Before his last visit to Brady Theatre in June of 2007, I got to speak briefly with Winwood and he revealed that Eric Clapton had just spent a week with him as the two rehearsed together in preparation for an appearance at Clapton's annual Crossroad's guitar festival.
The next year, Winwood released a new studio album, Nine Lives, which featured a collaboration with Clapton on the single "Dirty City." The pair co-headlined a tour together following its release and followed up with a live album from the tour that featured both of them.
Even since, Winwood has continued to tour regularly, reaching back into his storied catalog of songs to strike a balance with his current band that not only tips its hat to his pop sensibilities, but also allows the group to have the improvisational freedom that Winwood seems to have always desired.
Surely, a few of those pop hits will be touched upon, but current reviews suggest that the night will focus on much more. Recent set lists reveal he has been focusing just as much or more on his collaborative efforts, spotlighting the different chapters of Traffic's existence and touching on his days in Blind Faith and Spencer Davis Group, while also visiting tracks from his last solo album, Nine Lives, as well.
More than anything, though, response from the current tour suggests that Winwood has finally found his comfort zone and a way to balance his love for pop and R&B with his more experimental nature. If you're looking for simply another retro '80s show of rehashed hits on Saturday, this won't be your cup of tea. If you're looking to visit with a legendary musician who continues to evolve while embracing his past, Winwood's visit to The Joint this Saturday night may just be one of the best shows of the season.
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