3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Steve Winwood’s been making music for more than 45 years. He recently celebrated his 60th birthday. Do the math. The King of the keyboards had his first hit record when he was 15 years old! (Take that Britney Spears.) His new album, “Nine Lives,” a mixture of Afro, Cuban and rock, is another milestone in a legendary career that shows no signs of slowing down.
You know the resume. Barely out of his knickers, Steve and his older brother Muff joined the Spencer Davis Group in 1963. A child prodigy, Winwood played the Hammond B3 organ with the wizardry of Jimmy Smith, could pick the blues like Peter Green and throw down a bass run as thick as James Jamerson. But oh, that voice -- choir boy clarity mixed with Ray Charles grit and soul. With “Stevie” at the helm, the Spencer Davis Group racked up four top hits in the U.K., “Gimme Some Lovin’,” “Keep on Running,” “Somebody Help Me” and “I’m A Man,” the last song featuring Winwood’s future bandmates Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood’s party vocals in the background.
Feeling hemmed in by Spencer Davis’ R & B hit machine formula, Winwood started jamming with Capaldi, Wood and Dave Mason. The quartet soon formed Traffic. Through seven studio albums and three live ones, the core of the group -- Winwood, Capaldi and Wood -- whether abetted by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, uber drummer Jim Gordon, booming bassist Rick Grech or nimble-fingered percussionist Anthony Reebop Kwaku Baah, produced incomparable anthems that encompassed rock, folk, R & B, jazz and Third World music. The group’s free form creative process was both a blessing and a curse. The album “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” gave the group matchless material they could use to stretch out their stage performances. The ripple was sax/flute/keyboardist Chris Wood. As his alcohol and drug intake increased, his skills decreased. By 1974 Winwood was too exhausted, Capaldi too disgusted, and Wood to hung-over for the group to continue. Capaldi resumed the successful solo career he’d begun in 1971 with “Oh How We Danced.” Wood began work on his first solo album, “Vulcan,” which he was still attempting to complete nine years later when he died. As expected, Winwood become the most successful Trafficker, racking up a Gold album and four Platinum albums.
Winwood is a superb musician, but it’s an overlooked fact he doesn’t write his own lyrics. His few stabs at wordsmithing have been successful: “Can’t Find My Way Back Home,” “Sea Of Joy,” and “Had To Cry Today” for Blind Faith; “Midland Maniac” for his first solo album., and “Different Light” for “About Time.” As a solo artist, Winwood has collaborated with Capaldi, ex-Bonzo Dog Band loon Viv Stanshall, producer Jimmy Miller and Will Jennings, among others. The only lyricist still above ground is Jennings, who severed ties with Winwood when Narada Michael Walden and Winwood’s wife, Eugenia, exerted too much influence over the disastrous “Junction Seven” album. For the previous album, “About Time,” Winwood tabbed his wife and guitarist Jose Pires de Almeida Neto (try putting that on a business card) as his wordsmiths. Newcomer Peter Godwin picked up a pen along with Neto to write the lyrics for “Nine Lives,” and while their ideas aren’t as thought-evoking as Capaldi’s, each syllable seamlessly works it way into Winwood’s intricate musical creations.
The opener, “I’m Not Drowning,” is the only song on “Nine Lives” in which Winwood played all the instruments. Winwood has done some of his most memorable work going completely solo, so it’s no surprise “I’m Not Drowning” is the best song on the CD. Winwood lays down a relentless, bluesy pattern on acoustic guitar while tapping out paddy whack percussion against the side of his drum set. He occasionally accents the beat with a kick on the bass drum or by clapping in time. Unlike some of the other songs, Winwood sounds totally involved, freed: “Black night down heavy on my weary brow, light shining in the pouring rain. Can see somehow cold comfort in the broken trees, but I won’t let it bring me to my knees. I’m not flying, but I’m not drowning now.” Winwood does make a gaffe on the guitar near the fade out, but by then you’ll be too entranced by his soulful vibe to notice. Just call him Sticks Winwood.
“Fly” takes off amidst a dreamy, Traffic-y arrangement with Winwood projecting out peaceful platitudes on his Hammond to the rest of his touring band: Jose Neto (guitar), Richard Bailey (drums) Paul Booth (sax, flute, keyboards) and Karl Vanden Bossche (percussion). “Fly” nearly crashes when Booth drifts in on soprano sax, sounding waaay too much like limp Kenny G. at his wimpiest. Having worked with the unpredictable but brilliant Chris Wood in Traffic and with concise sax man Randall Bramlett on his previous solo albums, you’d think Winwood would go for a more hearty, emotional sound, instead of this Chamomile mood killer. Chris Wood used a soprano sax to a shattering effect on Traffic’s “No Time To Live.” Perhaps Booth should have studied its tone and effect before sauntering into his lamentable Las Vegas lounge act. Fortunately Booth only squawks his way through the first minute and sleazes up the outro. The rest of the song, a ballad of hope, soars: “Climbed a mountain, just to see the other side. We start with nothing, ‘cause there’s nothing left to hide. I believe in every new day. I’ll never be the man who threw it all away.”
“Dirty City” mines the same subject matter as Traffic’s “Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory” – the seamy underbelly of life, drugs, hit men and loan sharks. The seductive, low rider rhythm is capped off by Winwood’s thick guitar chording and predatory B3. Oh yeah, there’s a fellow by the name of Eric Clapton on board who plays a scorching solo at the end. Clapton’s presence undoubtedly figured in “Dirty City” being chosen as the first single. Winwood eschewed publicity while he was playing in Traffic (get it?), but has come to realize its value as a solo artist. Winwood is one of the more purposeful guitarists you’ll ever hear (check out his remarkable solos that bookend his vocal on “(Sometimes) I Feel So Uninspired from Traffic’s “On The Road” album) and could have easily duplicated what Clapton does here, but Clapton’s got a name and a lot of fans, so roll with it.
Jazzy riffs, popping percussion and a jaw-jerking, rapid fire vocal characterize “Raging Sea.” Bossche is no Reebop. He keeps a steady, chugging backdrop and never ventures out of his protective pocket, but that’s why Winwood sacked Reebop from Traffic in the first place (he was too much of a show unto himself). I’m not sold on the pseudo jazz bit, but Neto’s got a pleasant light tough on electric and is adept at creating a backing rhythm that keeps the song moving.
A throaty Greg Rolie Hammond intro and splashes of percussion introduce “We’re All Looking,” another marriage of rock, jazz, folk and Cuban styles. The organ is more upfront – mainly because Neto isn’t on the cut. Winwood fills his spot with bass keys that couple with Bossche’s unassuming, sturdy percussion. Although it’s a bit like “Raging Sea,” “We’re All Looking” is more successful because of the added fills. Winwood picks up an acoustic midway through and tears off a dexterous solo and Bossche takes a few measures to rattle the timbales. And I have to say I think this succeeds where “Raging Sea” fails because Neto takes five.
“Hungry Man” takes the listener to Brazil at carnival time. I’ve never been much for having the guitarist noodle in the background while the vocalist is singing, it’s often distracting, and by the time the spotlight shifts to the guitarist for an actual solo he usually runs out of riffs, as is the case here. “Hungry Man” has a bit of “Iko, Iko” in it, which doesn’t completely jive with the South American sounds, creating some uneasy listening. It’s a well orchestrated party, especially when Winwood lays down some earthy, festive chords. But “Hungry Man” is just too much of a culture clash and is starved for a focal point.
Thematically, “Secrets” is “Dirty City” part two, a tale of gun runners, drinking mohitos and skulking around like Secret Agent Man. Booth rectifies his past indiscretions with a whispery Herbie Mann-ish flute passage that bumps up the song’s air of mystery. Add in a few quick taps on timbales from Bossche, a nice vamp outro, and it’s no secret, this is a good tune.
“At Times We Do Forget” is a bubbly up-tempo ballad that pushes Winwood closer to his Traffic roots. Booth blows lightly on flute, and Bossche finally let’s loose with a blast of congas and timbales. A first-rate blend of rock and Latin music, “At Times We Do Forget” is a polished gem you’ll remember long after you put the CD back on the shelf.
“Other Shore” ends the album on a high note by placing Winwood’s silken voice in a ballad, territory in which he excels. Bailey discovers his high hat at opportune times, Neto is crisp, and a redeemed Booth adds a pensive touch on sax (a real one, a tenor, not that frilly Kenny G. soprano). Booth is still a bit too showy, too jazzy, but I’ve been spoiled listening to Chris Wood‘s more organic and adventurous turns backing up Winwood for the past thirty years. Winwood’s luminous voice is inspirational, and give Godwin a nod for coming up with lyrics that mirror the music’s calming effect: “In the rush of breathing there is always passing time, there is always somebody leaving, someone’s always left behind. But something endures in the morning’s blue light, I have you and you have me, and I’ll be alright when the skies all clear, ‘cause we’re all born to be free.”
The import version of “Nine Lives” comes with a 30-minute DVD covering the making of the album and Winwood’s history with Spencer Davis, Traffic, and Blind Faith. There are some great performance shots with the 1994 version of Traffic, including Winwood, Capaldi and Randall Bramlett performing “John Barleycorn.” There’s also stellar footage of Winwood and Eric Clapton performing live earlier this year. The duo, the backbone of Blind Faith, performs a warm rendition of Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” In the footage department, there are rare shots of Winwood, Capaldi, Wood (and sometimes Mason) cavorting during Traffic’s earliest days.
In a series of interviews, Winwood explains how some of the tunes on “Nine Lives” came to fruition. “I’m Not Drowning” was the one where Godwin came up with the lyrics first, describing his idea for the song as “Robert Johnson in Chelsea in 2007.” Winwood laughs when he admits he’s not sure if his career has had nine lives, and while its coincidence there are nine songs on the album, he planned for each song to have a life of its own, “It’s the opposite of a concept album.”
One of the DVD’s revelations is that Winwood, a devotee of African rhythms, still adheres to a bit of philosophy passed on by the late Reebop – “Musicians and music lovers are not the same thing. One listens to music for appreciation, the other to learn.” Winwood admits he’s not above learning about and exploring new musical idioms.
You’ll also get to see Winwood’s cool home studio, which is housed in a centuries old barn at the estate he’s lived at for the past 40 years. Better still; the interviews let you get inside the head of one of rock’s premier talents. It’s worth plucking down a few extra shillings just for the Traffic and Winwood/Clapton footage.
Although his first solo album charted respectably, critics savaged “Steve Winwood” because, like his fans, they expected more. Laboring over a three year period, Winwood played all the instruments on his second album, even venturing into Jim Capaldi territory by tackling the drums. With Capaldi living in Brazil, Winwood needed a new lyricist. Enter Will Jennings, a Texan known for his collaborations with countrified artists like Linda Ronstadt and Roy Orbison. Jennings, George Fleming and the Bonzo Dog Band bizarro Viv Stanshall all stepped forward to fill Capaldi’s void and did so admirably. The resulting album, “Arc of a Diver” (3 ½ out of 5 stars) eventually went Platinum. Standout tracks included “Spanish Dancer” in which Winwood makes his synthesizers glimmer and sizzle like a midday Madrid sun and whirl like a hoochie mama on a disco floor; “Nigh Train,” which takes the listener on a streamlined journey across Europe on the edge of Winwood’s revved up synths and programmed piston drumming; and the title track, in which Winwood somehow makes Stanshall’s obtuse lyrics sway with the coolness of hip gentleman caller: “Arc of a diver, effortlessly, my mind in the sky. And when I wake up, daytime and nighttime I need you near, warm water breathing, she helps me here.”
It was the lead track, “While You See A Chance,” that first caught listener’s attention. The optimistic anthem arrives on a puffy cloud of synthesizers before Winwood’s soaring vocal implores: “Stand up in a clear blue morning, until you see what can be. Alone in a cold day dawning, are you still free? Can you be?”
Winwood’s top ten ticket back to FM radio almost didn’t happen. While preparing the final mixes for “While You See A Chance” Winwood accidentally erased the song’s original intro and had to replace it with the unmistakable hymn-like synthesizer solo.
Laden with 80s synthesizers, Winwood’s third solo album, 1982’s “Talking Back to the Night” (4 out of 5 stars) may sound a bit anachronistic, but the songs themselves hold up. A retooled version of “Valerie” hit the top ten five years later, Joe Cocker recorded a version of the title track, and the album reached #6 in the U.K. Winwood stuck with the proven formula, recording all of instruments himself, but for this outing he Jennings was his sole lyrical source. Aside from the love-struck, laser-layered “Valerie,” other notable tracks were the bouncy “Still In The Game,” featuring Winwood’s first wife, Nicole, on back up vocals, and the jingly, inspirational, “Help Me Angel.” The album also contained “And I Go,” with a towering vocal so sanctified your ears will feel blessed every time you hear it.
The success of “Talking Back To The Night” prompted Winwood to commit to a long promised solo tour in England, which further convinced Steve it was time to work with other musicians again. The karmic wheel was aligned right, the material was top-notch, and the participants -- Joe Walsh, James Taylor, Nile Rogers. Dan Hartman, James Ingram and Chaka Khan -- guaranteed that Winwood’s fourth album, 1986’s “Back In the High Life” (4 ½ out of 5 stars) would be among his finest. Winwood’s peers agreed, awarding the single “Higher Love,” a Grammy’s for Record of the Year and a second Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. Chaka Khan adds vocal sass, and the overall feel of the song captures the high-toned cool of the time. The camera shy Winwood was even coaxed into making a sexy video for “Higher Love,” which didn’t hurt sales.
The album contains many of Winwood’s iconic solo songs, including the folky, mandolin drenched title track with Taylor that Winwood still performs in concert; the throbbing grit of the Winwood/Joe Walsh tune “Split Decision,” with stoner Walsh slicing up the background on slide guitar, and the threatening, horn blasting funk of “Freedom Overspill.” It’s hard to believe Viv Stanshall could write a cognizant, let alone touching lyric, but he came through with “My Love’s Leavin’,” the supple closer: “I can’t believe she’s going, I said please show me, what selfish seeds I plant along the way, black harvest today.”
The album’s burner is “Take It As It Comes” which lands in your speakers with a crash of Mickey Curry’s kit and a Motown rush of horns. Winwood’s ripping solo serves as a reminder he’s a first class guitarist. Sinners will repent after a taste of “Wake Me Up On Judgment Day,” with John Robinson providing the big thump on drums, Nile Rogers scratchy away on rhythm guitar and Jocelyn Brown, Connie Harvey and Mark Stevens shouting a say hallelujah back up. The only sub standard cut on the album is “The Finer Things,” which goes from religious instruction gospel to dance floor demolition too abruptly for the two styles to blend.
Winwood’s solo career appeared to top out with his next effort, the slick, homogenized “Roll With It” (3 out of 5 stars), released two years later in 1988. Winwood detractors would claim Steve sold his blue-eyed sole out when he agreed to let Budweiser use “Don’t You Know What The Night Can Do” in a beer ad. Real rockers don’t sell out to the establishment! In retrospect, Winwood was simply leading the way for a practice that’s commonly accepted these days, for better or worse.
It wasn’t just Stevie’s payday that bothered some folks, including me. You’d never know Winwood was in Traffic by listening to “Roll With It.” Even his collaboration with the un-exiled Jim Capaldi, “Hearts on Fire,” owed more to James Brown than John Barleycorn. But Winwood had his hipster funk money-making machine down to a successful science; there were equal parts glowing ballads (“Don’t You Know What The Night Can Do,” “The Morning Side,” “One More Morning”) rump shaking dance tunes (“Roll With It,” “Put On Your Dancing Shoes,” “Hearts On Fire”), and adult MOR (“Holding On,” “Shining Song). The first single was the horn happy New Orleans/Motown flavored title track. “Roll With It” harkened back to Winwood’s days as lead shouter for Spencer Davis. It remains a radio favorite that will get your gams going as soon as you hear drummer John Robinson’s downbeat. Robinson also puts the dance in “Put On Your Dancing Shoes” with a contagious lead-footed beat propelled by Winwood’s slick vocal.
The album had plenty of soul, what it lacked was a sole. Nothing was wholly unlistenable, but Winwood had set the bar so high in his career that a record that merely entertained and didn’t enlighten was not enough. The backlash would soon follow…
Winwood then did something no artist should ever do – he dissed his own work. Taking the criticism of “Roll With It” for being too slick to heart, he denounced his blue-eyed “Back In the High Life” period and promised his next effort would more closely embrace his past. Traffic fans (like me) were delirious, but the five million people who’d bought “Back In the High Life” undoubtedly felt a bit betrayed. As a result, Winwood’s next album 1990’s “Refugees of the Heart” (4 out of 5 stars) was guaranteed fewer sales before it was even released.
Winwood didn’t lie. From Randall Bramlett’s opening wail on sax for “You’ll Keep On Searching,” there was an indication that Traffic was flowing in Winwood’s music again. Winwood continued to parlay with Will Jennings, but the album’s first single was the bass drum happy “One and Only Man,’ written with Jim Capaldi, who pounds the skins with the power of a knockout artist going in for the kill. It may have been telling that Gentleman Jim and Winwood were the only two musicians on the song, with Stevie handling, keyboards, bass, and guitar just like the old days in Traffic. Capaldi also manned the kit for “Ever Day (Oh Lord)” and “Come Out and Dance,” which was roughly son of “Put On Your Dancing Shoes,” with Capaldi showing he’d improved markedly as a time keeper. Larry Byrom provided some steel swagger on slide guitar for “Another Deal Goes Down,” and the quiet, spiritual “I Will Be There,” told folks that Winwood was easing out of the R & B business and moving back toward a gentler, more substantive sound.
The final cut, “In the Light of Day” is unlike anything Winwood has recorded before or since. A monolithic nine plus minutes, it rises on Winwood’s lofty keyboard work that strings together Fairlights, organ and piano, with Randall Bramlett’s very Wood-like solo and Bashiri Johnson’s bashiring of the drums. The unexpected highlight is a vibes solo by Winwood. By going Lionel Hampton, Winwood once again showed his versatility and introduced his audience to vibes rock.
Winwood and Capaldi’s reunion for “One and Only Man” (Capaldi’s in the video too), spawned a Traffic reunion in 1994 with Randall Bramlett stepping in on sax and flute for Chris Wood, who’d lost his battle against alcohol and drug abuse in 1983. Winwood wouldn’t release another album until 1997’s disappointing “Junction Seven.” But after “Junction,” the man whose made more comebacks than Muhammad Ali reassessed his sound, morphing it into a hybrid that melded his solo work with the Third World percussion-based music he’d first been exposed to by Reebop Kwaku Baah and through his stints with Aye Keyeta and the Fania All Stars.
When Winwood released “About Time” (4 out of 5 stars) in 2003, I was one conflicted fan. I’d tried to glom what joy I could out of the album’s wretched predecessor, “Junction Seven,” but I wasn’t prepared for the feast of congas, drums and Hammond that dominated “About Time.” Maybe that’s why Winwood recorded Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together.” Anybody whose ever stepped behind a Hammond has either played or been asked to play that one, along with “Hush” and “Good Lovin’.” If Winwood’s goal was to ease his fans into his transformation into Ruben Blades by revisiting a familiar tune, it worked. Winwood’s version has just enough lag to make the song his own, replacing the original’s drum machine with former Traffic drummer Walfredo Reyes, percussionist Karl Vanden Bossche, and Richard Bailey on timbales.
Winwood knew how to compromise to keep his fans, critics and himself happy. The fans and critics wanted Winwood to return to his Traffic roots. Jettisoning his synths, Winwood got back behind the Hammond B3, surrounding himself with enough percussionists to conjure up visions of Reebop’s busy work and his Afro influence. Traffic had also survived for a period of time without a bassist, with Winwood play the bass parts on the organ. Surprise, he was at it again on “About Time.” Fans and critics applauded Winwood’s return to his roots. But was he really bringing back Traffic’s sound? Not exactly. With Jose Neto stroking rhythm and lead guitar, the music took on a more Latin flavor. But the new style made Winwood happy, and he produced one his most cohesive albums to date.
The first single, “Different Light,” rides in on an unobtrusive carpet of percussion and Winwood’s expert handling of the Hammond. “Take It To The Final Hour” has a brush of reggae instilled within Reyes’ tick-tack beat, and Winwood unleashes one of his richer more soulful solos. “Bully” wreaks with confidence, with playful lyrics that seem to take another swipe at Dave Mason, Traffic’s excommunicated guitarist: Another radio-friendly track was “Horizon,” a warm ballad that’s a dead ringer for King Crimson’s trippy “Moon Child” (hope Pete Sinfield, Greg Lake and the boys don’t sue Steve). Well, if you’re going to borrow a melody, make it a good one.
Winwood gets a little too Latin-happy for a gringo in “Cigano (For the Gypsies)” and “Silvia (Who Is She).” Apparently, songs in parenthesis don’t work on this disc. Both songs are steeped in traditional Latin rhythms with agitated time signatures that grate rather than ingratiate.
“About Time” didn’t exactly light up the charts, peaking at a meager #126, lower even than “Junction Seven.” Since then it’s become Winwood’s version of the little engine that could, garnering positive reviews and displaying a shelf life on FM radio.
By the time Traffic ground to a halt in 1974, Steve Winwood was very tired of the album-tour-album-tour syndrome. Although Traffic had no acknowledged leader, Winwood had been the group’s focal point by virtue of his resume. The group was hailed as one of the great rock/jazz/folk fusion bands, and had a string of critically acclaimed albums including “John Barleycorn Must Die,” “Welcome to the Canteen” and their magnum opus, 1971’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” But as the band members had increased Chris Wood’s role in the group diminished. The founding member that Winwood and Capaldi have often said was responsible for the group’s “headless horseman” music went from being a vibrant sax/flute/keyboard player to an unreliable, red-eyed drunk who missed cues and concerts, and blew cold notes from his sax when he did show up. Throw in the enigmatic and show stealing Reebop, heroin huffing super drummer Jim Gordon, yo-yo in entrances and exits from guitarist Dave Mason and off stage, Traffic was in a constant jam, trying to balance the group’s personalities with their music. In an effort to invigorate Wood, Winwood and Capaldi sacked half the band (and eventually Reebop) after the 1973 tour that produced the live “On The Road” album. But Wood was too far gone. Despite the success of 1974’s “When the Eagle Flies,” Wood wasn’t up for the extended tour that followed. The group took an extended hiatus that lasted 25 years.
Winwood took a long respite from the studio before deciding on his next career move. He’d recorded parts of “John Barleycorn Must Die” (initially called “Mad Shadows”), his first intended solo album on his own, and decided to revisit the formula because it allowed him to record at his own pace. Cribbing some lyrics from old band mate Jim Capaldi, (who also makes a guest appearance on the anthemic doomsday ecology tome “Time Is Running Out” along with Reebop), Winwood brought in veteran bassist Willie Weeks (George Harrison, Rod Stewart. The Rolling Stones) and drummer Andy Newmark (Sly Stone, Eric Clapton, David Bowie) to provide the current prevailing disco beat that had stolen the airwaves. The results, given Winwood’s track record to date, were somewhat of a disappointment when “Steve Winwood” (2 ½ out of 5 stars) was released in 1977. There were only six songs, meaning three “Time Is Running Out” (6.28), “Midland Maniac” (8.26) and “Vacant Chair” (6.54) were in danger of overstaying their welcome. Despite its ecological big stick and Winwood assaying Brit rap, the chant-a-thon “Time” bounces, mainly because of Capaldi’s animated back up and Reebop’s always stellar conga caressing. With a pleading, Motown vocal by Winwood, jabbing synthesizers and bluesy solo that would make B.B. King say “That’s my boy!” “Hold On” starts the album off at a high level the rest of the platter never reaches. “Midland Maniac” is a beautifully sung hymn, but I defy you to figure out what Winwood is saying, and “Vacant Chair” (co-written with nutter Viv Stanshall) has a chorus that roughly translates to “Sara se du nugu.” Never ever use Swahili in a chorus if you’re not going to provide a lyric sheet with a translation. The two remaining Winwood/Capaldi collaborations are well sung throwaways. “Luck’s In” craps out, sounding like jerky Chick Correa jazz gone bad, and “Let Me Make Something Of Your Life” is only listenable because of Winwood’s choir boy cry whenever he hits the title line. It’s telling that Capaldi thought so little of the tunes he never recorded them himself.
Winwood looked finished…He retreated to his studio, Netherturkdonic, decided to ditch the disco influences and record all the instruments on his next album himself. If he was going to go out, it would be on a shield of his won creation. But instead of being his swan song, his next album, 1980’s “Arc of A Diver” turned the one man band into a solo superstar.
Steve Winwood could burp the phone book and make it sound like art. He’d need two phone books to up the quality of “Junction Seven” (2 out of 5 stars) the 1987 train wreck that fulfilled his multi-million dollar contact with Virgin Records. It wasn’t a noble departure. Thanks to producer Narada “Nada” Michael Walden and Yoko-like interference from Winwood’s second wife, Eugenia, Winwood’s flirtation with the R & B sound that characterized his early career with Spencer Davis was boogied up to ridiculous proportions. Nada has a perfect record – everything he’s ever produced is sonic manure. It didn’t seem possible that he could nearly scuttle Winwood’s respected career, but this 11-song travesty nearly did. Somehow, the talented combination of Winwood, Nile Rogers (guitar) and Nathan Rubin (“concert master”) took the slinky funk of Sly Stone’s “Family Affair” and turned it into a punchless orphan. How is this possible? Well the inchworm tempo doesn’t help, but I’m pointing the finger at Walden, who played “live” drums, programmed drums, synth bass, keyboards and percussion. In other words, too damn much Walden equals nada (TDMWEN). And that’s what’s wrong with album – this is a showcase for Walden, not Winwood.
The project was crippled from the start by the choice of the Winwood/Walden/Capaldi toss off “Spy In the House of Love” as the first single. It’s an embarrassing piece of street R &B straight out of “American Idol,” with plenty of urban bluster, but no substance. There are snatches of percolating funk in “Fill Me Up” and “Gotta Get Back To My Baby” which were written by Winwood and neophyte lyricist Eugenia Winwood, but it’s a case of Winwood sounding unsure in a blue-eyed soul format he helped popularize because it’s now cluttered, synthesized and programmed into a stylistic corner. If Winwood had come up with more of the tough, bass-bending strut found in the closing number “Lords of the Street” (one of the few instances where he plays more instruments than Nada), “Junction Seven” might have charged up the charts. Instead it reached a deserved #123.
A few positives came out of TDMWEN. Winwood met Jose Neto, who appeared on the somnambulistic “Plenty Lovin’” with singer Des’ree (anybody remember her?). Winwood was also working with Jim Capaldi again, or at least asking him for lyrics, which always stirred up the possibility that Traffic would get together again. (They would have if Capaldi hadn’t passed away.) A final blessing was the Winwood/Walden/Capaldi composition “Angel of Mercy,” a flawless, saintly ballad that washed away rest of the album’s misdirected mess. It was Winwood as Father O’Brien, his airy vocal capable of guiding you through your darkest hour. If nothing else, Winwood learned from his mistakes. It was six years before he released another solo album, the much improved “About Time.”
Every cat has nine lives, and “Nine Lives” Winwood’s latest effort has spawned another successful incarnation. Maybe I’m not completely sold on the very English Mr. Winwood cavorting around as a keyboard version of Carlos Santana, but he seems to like it, and let’s face it, Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood and Reebop are dead and likely to remain so, so this is as close to Traffic as you’re going to get. The album’s one questionable attribute is its over reliance on Third World rhythms, specifically Afro and Cuban influences. When Guyanan percussionist Reebop played in Traffic his influence was felt but was also smoothly integrated into the group’s myriad of sounds. On “Nine Lives” and the previous effort, “About Time,” the Afro/Cuban influences nearly overpower the material. I either miss Reebop or I’m not as into Jose Neto’s pervasive influence as I thought, but I felt some of the songs, particularly “Fly” and “Hungry Man” would have benefited from a more straight forward rock or folk approach.
“Nine Lives” lives when Winwood taps into his rock roots as on “I’m Not Drowning,” “At Times We Do Forget,” “Other Shore,” and “Dirty City.” He’s too good a musician to get caught completely flat-footed in Neto’s net of tricky rhythms, but he does occasionally sound like a gringo at his own party. Overall, “Nine Lives” picks up the thread laid down by “About Time” and sews together an entertaining, frisky album worth listening to. Will you like it? You bet your life.