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Steve Winwood “I always felt the need to work with the people with crazy ideas”

Steve Winwood

 Steve Winwood: “I always felt the need to work with the people with crazy ideas”
•★•       “We were very lucky, I think, that we were playing at a time when the world was changing. In ‘64, it was like the eggshell was just starting to crack…” Up from his Cotswolds farm (“It’s sheep country”) for the day, the gentlemanly Steve Winwood takes Uncut on a tour of his remarkable 60~year career. From the Spencer Davis Group prodigy to Traffic and Blind Faith, via memorable encounters with Hendrix and Viv Stanshall, he tells Tom Pinnock how he kept it together through some of the most momentous passages of rock history…Fotka uživatele Ben Tais Amundssen.                                   © Photo credit: Estate Of Keith Morris, Redferns
Tom Pinnock March 9, 2018
•★•       The 21st century found Winwood returning to his roots, with the help of the musician who had introduced him to bohemian life back in the mid~‘60s. “I think Eric felt we had a bit of unfinished business, which we clearly did. Of course, by that time, Eric was not only a great guitarist, he was a great bandleader and a great singer. So it was fantastic. We brought some closure to what had gone on in Blind Faith.”
•★•       Clapton and Winwood’s 2008 show in New York was immortalised on a joint live album, Live At Madison Square Garden, which found the pair tackling songs from across their careers, including Blind Faith and Traffic numbers, and a 16~minute take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”, the original of which features Winwood on organ [see panel]. On the evidence of this, along with Greatest Hits Live, his voice has aged remarkably well, yet he doesn’t take his gifts for granted.
•★•       “The voice is a muscle,” he says. “The body can’t do what it did when I was 25, and the voice is similar. But it occurred to me that if you watch older people playing tennis, because of their years of playing they read the ball better, so they don’t have to move as fast. It’s the same with singing. I started playing live about 60 years ago, and I’ve done it all my life since. I do still enjoy playing live, and I enjoy being in the studio, but I don’t want to do it quite as intensively as I have in the past. That way, it keeps the enthusiasm going.”
•★•       “Even back in the late ‘60s, Steve was pretty well~grounded,” remembers Terry Brown. “He didn’t have that rock star craziness about him at all.”
•★•       As Winwood explains, it’s only in recent years that he’s come to consider the cultural and political ramifications of his work, rather than the purely musical ones. “I saw people walking down the street with nose piercings, spiky hair and big boots, and a friend of mine said to me, ‘Winwood, you’ve caused all that, by starting rock’n’roll!’ But music was the accompaniment to the changes, not the cause. After the war, it was just ripe for those changes to happen. Yeah, there were great advances in music in the ‘60s, but it was all to do with communication — we were suddenly hearing blues records no~one had heard of.
•★•       “Now I’m a bit more interested in the cultural changes, but then I was never really interested in it,” says Winwood, considering what’s ultimately kept him going for 60 years onstage. “What I was interested in was music.”
•★•       Unlike many of the musicians he’s collaborated with, Steve Winwood is something of a survivor. Indeed, he’s managed to pack the work of a few lifetimes into his seven decades years — from jazz bootcamp as a child, and teenage adoration as an R&B star with The Spencer Davis Group, to heralding the psychedelic revolution with Traffic, enduring the trials of a “complex” supergroup with Blind Faith, and then huge popularity as a solo artist and MTV mainstay. Then there’s the piles of albums he’s played on as a guest, records by John Martyn, George Harrison, Van Morrison, Talk Talk, Paul Weller, Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendrix and more.Fotka uživatele Ben Tais Amundssen.                                                           © Photo credit: Juan Pont Lezica
•★•       “Jimi came across as a bit of a wildman,” he says. “But all that early grounding in music is what made his music great. That’s probably why he wanted me to play on ‘Voodoo Chile’, maybe he recognised that I’d been through a similar sort of thing as him.”
•★•       Winwood’s own work is showcased on his latest release, Greatest Hits Live, a double set in which the singer, guitarist and organist and his band perform songs from across his career, infusing their R&B, soul, folk~rock and psychedelia with subtle influences from funk, Caribbean and South American music.
•★•       “The album definitely is a homage to all the bands I’ve played with,” Winwood explains. “For the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve tried to reinvent a lot of the old stuff, give them different treatments. The basic setup of the band is a take on the old jazz organ trio, which was organ, guitar and drums, but with added percussion and a horn player.”
•★•       “He’s been through so many phases of popular music,” says Winwood’s guitarist of 17 years, José Neto. “All the changes and transitions, so it’s an amazing learning experience for anyone that works with him. He’s quite a remarkable musician.”
•★•       “It’s not fair someone should have all that talent,” laughs Traffic engineer Terry Brown. “Steve’s singing is phenomenal, and his feel, it’s just in his DNA, there’s no doubt. It always seemed effortless.”
•★•       “This live album may well be a sort of punctuation mark,” Winwood says, considering his first release in eight years. “Not a full stop, more a punctuation mark at the end of playing live so intensively.”
•★•       Steve Winwood’s expanding ambitions led to the formation of Traffic with guitarist Dave Mason, drummer and lyricist Jim Capaldi, and multi~instrumentalist Chris Wood. Signed to Island by Chris Blackwell in 1967, the quartet headed out to live and jam in rural isolation in a cottage in Berkshire’s Aston Tirrold. “The main idea was that we wanted to be able to get together and play at all times of day or night, without having complaints from neighbours,” remembers Winwood. “The man who owned the whole estate was one of Chris Blackwell’s schoolfriends, this famous amateur jockey. I think Joe Cocker lived in Blackwell’s cottage, which was just down the lane. But there wasn’t a road to our cottage, and early on we had to get water out of a well.”
•★•       “We were young, we didn’t have any encumbrances,” says Dave Mason. “No wives, no kids, so we could just do what we wanted to do. When we moved in that place, there was nothing there, there was no electricity, no running water. People would come down and spend a few days. There was a lot of experimentation going on, let’s put it that way. Both [with drugs] and musically.”
•★•       Wood, who passed away in 1983, believed the upstairs of the house was haunted, but neither Winwood or Mason recall seeing anything too out of the ordinary. “It depends how strongly you believe in those sort of things,” says Winwood. “There were a lot of strange, odd substances flying around in those days, which even now I don’t know what they were.”
•★•       In reality, though, Traffic’s country life wasn’t as idyllic as it sounds. “It was four guys in there,” says Winwood, “so it was like a student crash~pad, the sink had dishes with days~old food…” There was also an issue with the band dynamic, which only intensified once Traffic started chalking up hits such as “Hole In My Shoe”; written by Mason, it reached No 2 in late summer ‘67.
•★•       “Dave very quickly started writing these quite poppy songs,” says Winwood. “But of course we didn’t know how to deal with that, as we didn’t want to be a part of the pop world — Traffic for me was all about mixing jazz, folk, ethnic music, rock, R&B. We wanted to forge our own music, by trying to combine those different elements.
•★•       “We all wanted to write together, to write out of jams that we had, but Dave wasn’t interested in that, he wanted to write his own songs, little arrangements in his head — which is fine, but I don’t think it was right for Traffic. Then we’d bring him in, when we could get him to play on something and jam with us like he did in the early days, but he wasn’t quite happy.”
•★•       “I was writing pretty much on my own,” says Mason. “I didn’t have any idea what I could or could not do. On a personal level, I don’t think that I got to know Steve Winwood that well. But he was a very musically talented person from a very young age — I obviously appreciated the musical talent he had a great deal.”
•★•       Feeling overwhelmed by the sudden success of the group and their 1967 debut, Mr Fantasy, Mason quit the band just after the album’s release. However, a chance meeting at New York’s Record Plant the following year led to Traffic and Mason pooling their songs and recording a light~footed, self~titled second album together. Once again, Mason’s more accessible songs, such as “Feelin’ Alright?”, were picked by Island for release as singles, and he split from the trio of Wood, Capaldi and Winwood for a second time.
•★•       “Who cares who writes the hit single?” says Mason. “I don’t give a damn. I didn’t know my songs were gonna be picked that way. I think it rubbed the wrong way [with Winwood], let’s put it that way! I’d rather not go into details, but it wasn’t a choice for me, whether I was with them or not. There’s some really great stuff on that second album, though — ‘40 Thousand Headmen’, ‘Pearly Queen’…”
•★•       “I’m stuck with people,” laments Winwood, “especially in the UK and Europe, who when you say Traffic, they think of ‘Hole In My Shoe’. Thankfully that’s not the case in America.”
•★•       In early 1969, as British psych lost its vibrancy, the restless Winwood departed Traffic to play with his friend Eric Clapton, fresh from the disintegration of Cream. “Eric and I wanted to see if we could discover something peculiar to us, our own music.”
•★•       Teaming up with Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech, the new quartet, christened Blind Faith, recorded their only album, 1969’s Blind Faith, featuring some stunning Winwood originals such as “Can’t Find My Way Home” and “Had To Cry Today”. It topped the charts in Britain and America, but the pressure of being a supergroup in the new arena age was too much. “The music industry was just recognising that there was big money in playing arenas, but the music we were making, this folky, jangly stuff, didn’t fit in with the idea of heavy rock in arenas. I think the record stands up well, but to translate that onto the road at the time [was hard]. The equipment wasn’t good enough to project that to big audiences – you had to have 100~watt amplifiers, crank them up and have loud guitar. Not that there was anything wrong with Ginger’s playing, but perhaps it wasn’t the right sort of playing for what we were trying to do. But when we got out on the road trying to play these big venues expecting heavy rock, Ginger was quite handy to have doing that!”
•★•       After one tour — supported by Delaney & Bonnie, then featuring Mason — Blind Faith went their separate ways: Clapton to Delaney & Bonnie, and Winwood to writing and recording a solo album. However, the multi~instrumentalist soon gravitated back to Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi, and the trio reformed Traffic.
•★•       “I felt we really had something that was our own,” says Winwood. “I played most of the instruments? Well, you say that, but the flute and sax were crucial. Chris played the smallest part, but contributed the most to Traffic. He used to bring us music to listen to, Japanese classical, obscure American jazz. When we did these jams, he was the one in control of the recording equipment. And of course Jim played drums on everything and wrote the lyrics. There’s something we created which was quite special.”
•★•       The resulting album was 1970’s John Barleycorn Must Die, a success on both sides of the Atlantic, and in some ways a response to the folk~rock of Fairport Convention and their like. “Interestingly enough, the early folk scene in Birmingham was linked to Marxism and workers’ rights, but I don’t think Traffic gave that a second thought — it was purely the music we were interested in, not the political angle. In many ways, John Barleycorn… was one of Traffic’s great albums. We gelled on that very well.”
•★•       Three more albums followed in the early ‘70s, including the elegant The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys, which featured Ric Grech on bass along with Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah. Still only in his twenties, Winwood also lent his talents to The Who (the 1972 LSO version of Tommy), John Martyn (‘73’s Inside Out and ‘77’s One World) and Viv Stanshall, on his solo debut, ‘74’s Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead.
•★•       “He was fantastic to work with,” says Winwood of the former Bonzo Dog Band member, who also contributed lyrics to a number of Winwood’s solo gems, including 1977’s “Vacant Chair” and 1980’s “Arc Of A Diver”. “He was incredibly prolific and had the most amazing, vibrant mind.”
•★•       Like others from the counterculture, Winwood became a household name as the ‘80s dawned, and his soulful, exquisitely produced music (not to mention, in Winwood’s case, wholesome good looks) made him a natural for this new, glossier decade.
•★•       If you watched MTV in the ‘80s, you’d have spotted a host of new Steve Winwoods appear to replace the hippier version of old — here, in the video for “Back In The High Life Again”, is Steve, with a mullet and an XXL shirt, hanging out at the railway yard; there, in the clip for “While You See A Chance”, is Steve, decked out in a designer suit, with a wobbly white pyramid and a dry~ice machine; in “Valerie”, even a super~strength wind machine can’t blow away the ropey digital effects running across Steve’s fingers. Did it feel like a weird time? “It was weird,” says Winwood. “But, for me, if you strip away the production techniques and look at the songs and the music, then it’s not much different to what was going on with Traffic. We were being told that we had to make a video with some daft person’s idea of what you were supposed to do. And I was wrongly, perhaps, persuaded by some of that. But as far as the music’s concerned, I was still doing the same thing I’d been doing in Traffic, and still doing now.”
•★•       Divorce a song like “Back In The High Life Again” from the hair mousse, Fairlights (“You name it, I had all the things!”) and gated drums, and Winwood has a point — he was still on the same musical mission, except this time he was selling millions of units across the world and becoming a mainstay of AOR radio. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the retailers, the radio stations and the record companies were all working together, supposedly, in some wonderful way… But that was a bubble waiting to burst [laughs], and I don’t lament that bubble bursting too much!”
•★•       The 21st century found Winwood returning to his roots, with the help of the musician who had introduced him to bohemian life back in the mid~‘60s. “I think Eric felt we had a bit of unfinished business, which we clearly did. Of course, by that time, Eric was not only a great guitarist, he was a great bandleader and a great singer. So it was fantastic. We brought some closure to what had gone on in Blind Faith.”
•★•       Clapton and Winwood’s 2008 show in New York was immortalised on a joint live album, Live At Madison Square Garden, which found the pair tackling songs from across their careers, including Blind Faith and Traffic numbers, and a 16~minute take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”, the original of which features Winwood on organ [see panel]. On the evidence of this, along with Greatest Hits Live, his voice has aged remarkably well, yet he doesn’t take his gifts for granted.
•★•       “The voice is a muscle,” he says. “The body can’t do what it did when I was 25, and the voice is similar. But it occurred to me that if you watch older people playing tennis, because of their years of playing they read the ball better, so they don’t have to move as fast. It’s the same with singing. I started playing live about 60 years ago, and I’ve done it all my life since. I do still enjoy playing live, and I enjoy being in the studio, but I don’t want to do it quite as intensively as I have in the past. That way, it keeps the enthusiasm going.”
•★•       “Even back in the late ‘60s, Steve was pretty well~grounded,” remembers Terry Brown. “He didn’t have that rock star craziness about him at all.”
•★•       As Winwood explains, it’s only in recent years that he’s come to consider the cultural and political ramifications of his work, rather than the purely musical ones. “I saw people walking down the street with nose piercings, spiky hair and big boots, and a friend of mine said to me, ‘Winwood, you’ve caused all that, by starting rock’n’roll!’ But music was the accompaniment to the changes, not the cause. After the war, it was just ripe for those changes to happen. Yeah, there were great advances in music in the ‘60s, but it was all to do with communication — we were suddenly hearing blues records no~one had heard of.
•★•       “Now I’m a bit more interested in the cultural changes, but then I was never really interested in it,” says Winwood, considering what’s ultimately kept him going for 60 years onstage. “What I was interested in was music.”
•★•       http://www.uncut.co.uk/
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Steve Winwood “I always felt the need to work with the people with crazy ideas”

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