Tag Archives: Steve Winwood

New Album! Steve Cropper

Guitar legend Steve Cropper has followed the recent trend of revisiting old chestnuts with the aid of other musical stars, but his effort is also a tip of the cap to one of his first and biggest musical influences, Lowman “Pete” Pauling of The 5 Royales. For all his contributions to music over the past half century, Cropper is not a household name, nor is the band he honors here. But let’s hope that for those without a proper frame of reference, his decision to include artists like Steve Winwood, B.B. King and Brian May will bring listeners like moths to a flame.

Of course, Cropper needs no help; his tone and feel are seminal and he shines throughout. Never overtly flashy, he’s not all over the songs but inside them like a heartbeat. Soulful, pensive, exciting – he breathes these songs to new life with inspired licks and a palpable sense of joy. And with Jon Tiven at the helm, the entire project shines.

The band is amazing, featuring David Hood and Spooner Oldham, and I was particularly thrilled with the inclusion of Dan Penn. Winwood fits like hand in glove, and I was pleasantly surprised by John Popper’s performance (I can count my favorite Popper songs on no fingers). But if there are star performances on Dedicated – A Salute To The 5 Royales, they belong to the dynamic Sharon Jones, the emotive Lucinda Williams and the electrifying Bettye LaVette.

This album is both fresh and a time trip; it will play with every emotion you own. Get your wallet out now.

Listen to clips at Amazon.

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Life’ll Kill Ya

It was on another long car trip this week that I slipped some Warren Zevon into the player, this time Genius, the collection issued in 2002. I knew every song, of course, and sang along loudly as I navigated the car through The Berkshires at night, my warble interrupted only by the occasional smack of a huge bug against the windshield and fenders. (I don’t know what flies around there at night, but I’m sure glad I wasn’t driving a convertible.)

Of course, no single disc could contain Zevon’s genius, and is the case with most veteran artists, seeing a show or listening to a collection always leaves you wanting more. So when I got home, I made a beeline for this one.

I really, really miss Warren Zevon. I can only imagine what he’d be writing about these days.

From Consumable Online, February 2000…

Some see the glass as half-empty, while others see the glass as half-full. Warren Zevon sees the glass as broken – some of the contents spilled all over his pants, and the rest rolling around on the floor.

With superb backing from longtime ace Jorge Calderon and drummer Winston Watson, Zevon continues to avoid the “big sound” for a more stripped down folk’n’roll approach. Naturally, focus then shifts to voice and words, where Zevon is king. “I can saw a woman in two/ but you won’t want to look in the box when I do,” he says in the Springsteen-ish “For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer,” which features Chuck Prophet on guitar. Taking the theme of “life sucks, then you die” to a new level, he explores the frailty of human existence and the quest for some sort of spiritual affirmation…which of course he’s skeptical about. And, just for good measure, some songs about S&M and the self-inflicted demise of Elvis Presley.

Having suffered the slings and arrows of a professional musician, Zevon’s weather-beaten attitude could be self-righteous or pastoral. Instead, underneath the surface of the crusty observer, you know he’s got it figured out; life’s too short to let the posturing and bullshit cramp our style.

You know I hate it when you put your hand inside my head/ and switch all my priorities around,” he says in “I’ll Slow You Down,” a tale as applicable to religious uncertainty as it is to relationship angst. Maybe we can settle for a simple “don’t let us get sick/don’t let us get old/don’t let us get stupid, alright?” Even the record’s lone cover, Steve Winwood’s “Back In The High Life Again” at first seems an odd choice, but in the context of these takes on the inevitable, it’s an ironic inclusion.

You can dream the American Dream,” Zevon says, “but you sleep with the lights on/and wake up with a scream.” Acerbic and clever as ever, Warren Zevon remains a unique treasure among American songwriters.

Listen to clips and purchase here.

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T.G.I.F. – Ten from 1969

"Set the Wayback Machine for 1969, Sherman..."

If the concept of how quickly time passes hadn’t already stunned me three days ago – realizing that it’s been almost thirty years since John Lennon was killed – an email from my friend Siege would have packed a bigger wallop. But looking at his list of albums that were released in 1969 made me think (1) “holy shit, that was forty years ago” and (2) “wow…that was a great year for music”. 

It was another transitional year for me – less AM and more FM, less singles and more albums, Woodstock, etc. Several artists’ debuts made an immediate impact – CSN and The Allman Brothers along with some on my list below. Some 60’s artists were soon to depart but left great statements like Abbey Road and Turtle Soup. Credence released three albums that year, and The Monkees were already up to Instant Replay. Others like Johnny Cash, Marvin Gaye and The Kinks were shifting their priorities from singles to more thematic works. Bob Dylan released Nashville Skyline

Some artists who would become lifelong favorites were just getting started – Alice Cooper and Pretties For You, Fleetwood Mac with Then Play On, debuts from Yes and Warren Zevon and Mott the Hoople (which would soon see serious turntable time over the next couple of years from this soon-to-be disc jockey). The Moody Blues released two classics; supergroups were forming…I own or owned seventy-two titles on that list, and there are very few that I wouldn’t pull out and play right now. 

Any year in music is a pretty easy topic to research, and certainly the few years on either side of 1969 would also reveal a robust list of favorites and classics. But I took a trip through Siege’s tally and picked out ten that had particular impact on me then and still resonate now. I could easily shift the list on another day – great music being a subjective decision, after all – and your mileage may vary as well. 

But you’re here, so indulge me. Break one or more of these out and savor them; maybe you will relive some great moments of your own. And if you’re young enough to not have experienced these albums, take a plunge. Hell, I gave Death Cab For Cutie a shot, you owe me

So in no particular order… 

40 Years old and still kicking ass

In The Court of the Crimson King (King Crimson) — Still kicking today although they’ve been three or four totally different groups over the years. The album cover was only a mild tipoff compared to the psychedelic prog within; I’ve long argued that Ian McDonald was the MVP of this version of the band. An aural acid trip, an album truly worthy of adjectives like majestic and classic

Blind Faith  (Blind Faith) — Two thirds of Cream adds the bass player from Family and secret weapon Steve Winwood for a one-shot effort. Short and incomplete, its high points are timeless; great songwriting from Winwood and Eric Clapton, especially “Presence of the Lord” and “Can’t Find My Way Home”. 

Let It Bleed (Rolling Stones) — As the Stones weaned their way from Brian Jones and their blues based gameplan, as drugs and Jagger’s control-freak antics started to splinter a band into The Glimmer Twins and the other guys, as the music industry tripped headlong from pop singles into stranger days, the Stones might have fired their best shot across the bow. The bookend tracks (“Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) are career-defining moments, and they didn’t even put their hit single (“Honky Tonk Women”) on it. 

Odessa (Bee Gees) — In which a pop band – already firmly established with a few hit singles – decides to experiment and challenge themselves to move on to the next step. Oh, how I wish they would have stayed this course instead of donning those ice cream suits a few years later. I expound in detail here

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (Neil Young) — Consider this a club sandwich, with the opening, closing and middle tracks – three stone cold classics – the bread supporting the tasty filling. Hot on the heels of his debut, this first dalliance with Crazy Horse still resonates, soon to be followed up by After The Gold Rush to form one of the best opening trifectas any artist ever managed. Name another song where a one-note guitar solo (“Cinnamon Girl”) is even half as thrilling. 

Dusty in Memphis (Dusty Springfield) — I’ll admit it, I would have been perfectly satisfied with “Son of a Preacher Man” had I not read a review that piqued my interest and sent me in search of the album. Oozing soul (and yes, sex) this was a great marriage of voice, performers and material. (That English bird? Really? Yep.) 

Hot Rats (Frank Zappa) — Little did I know at the time that my initial Frank Zappa fascination would be even stronger forty years later and sixteen years (!) past his death. Because I was a fan of The Mothers of Invention, I was willing to open my eyes to the jazz and fusion I experienced here, although I can’t imagine anyone not loving “Peaches en Regalia”. Timeless majesty. 

The Stooges (The Stooges) — I’ll credit one of my older friends – as well as Creem Magazine, most likely – for making me give this more than one listen. Stereos were getting more sophisticated and progressive rock bands were flaunting daredevil instrumental virtuosity, but the Stooges were salmon swimming upstream. The Stooges first seemed like demonic sludge; the sound made when someone opened the gates of Hell and gave them a broken megaphone to broadcast with. Of course, after the initial shock, I was converted…and remain so. 

Tommy (The Who) — An opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball player. Sure Pete – have another toke. But although others (The Kinks, The Pretty Things) already had done it, The Who get credit for creating the first rock opera. Forget the semantics; this remains an incredible musical statement, from hit singles (“Pinball Wizard”) to underrated killers (“Sensation”); even the instrumental breaks and transitions are glorious. Skip the theatre and film musicals and slap on a pair of headphones for the original “Amazing Journey” 

Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin) — I know now that they ripped off old blues riffs and repurposed them; I know now that the band was really just the last version of The Yardbirds with Jimmy Page taking control, and I know that a few years later they would get so self-indulgent that I would sell the vinyl at a used store out of anger. (Ah, the folly of youth). But this first record was a kick in the nuts – this band really hit the ground running and killed on every track. (Rock perfection:  the percussive instrumental “Black Mountain Side” lulling you into a trance and then “Communication Breakdown” interrupting the haze and ripping your jugular apart. Plant’s scream before Page’s solo still makes the hair stand up on every pore in my body.) 

Rock me baby.

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Blast From The Past: Traffic

Light up or leave them alone

Light up or leave them alone

Having recently been wowed by the latest collaboration between Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, my thoughts naturally travelled back to their catalogue of work over the past forty years. Blind Faith, of course, was among the first bands to earn the moniker supergroup, but they were one and done as far as releases go. Clapton’s work with The Yardbirds is fine, but it’s his work in Cream that shines brightest in hindsight. Around the same time Cream was peaking, the amazing vocals of a sixteen year old Brit knocked me sideways; The Spencer Davis Group’s single Gimme Some Lovin’ is still a jukebox favorite. But when Steve Winwood moved on to form Traffic…ahh, that’s where the magic really happened for me.

Traffic was an apt name for a band that dabbled in so many sonic areas, from folk to blues to psychedelia and jazz, often in the space of the same song, let alone the same album. Before Dave Mason left for the second time, the band juggled his pop sensibilities with the more avant-garde efforts from Winwood and Jim Capaldi; Chris Wood playing the Brian Jones role by dressing up the tracks with inventive instrumentation. Winwood was only eighteen when Traffic was formed (he just turned 61 in May) and the others only a couple of years older. It’s stunning to hear the depth and resonance in their catalogue when you consider their tender ages.

As with most great bands, I recommend you revisit the entire catalogue, as a “best-of” can never really capture the majesty of a long-tenured favorite. Smiling Phases, the out-of-print anthology, contained more cuts (although some argue that even the expanded selection is incomplete) but the audio is inferior to later releases. As single-CD collections go, Feelin’ Alright isn’t a bad one at all.

Here’s the review I wrote for PopMatters several years ago…

Traffic Feelin Alright

The thought of distilling the career of Traffic into a single disc must have been a mind-numbing task. First conceived as a psychedelic English rock group, the band morphed into a soulful blues group, then sailed through a jazz-influenced folk period and dabbled in reggae and American rhythm and blues. Dave Mason was on board for the initial ride, while the latter period drew players like Clapton and the Muscle Shoals studio rhythm section. Each period had its landmark successes, from Dear Mr. Fantasy to John Barleycorn Must Die to Shootout At The Fantasy Factory. In short, how do you boil down a twenty-five year organism to seventy-five minutes?

Well, you can’t, but this collection of “hits” and recognizable album cuts does as good a job as possible. Cutting off after The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys (the full 11:42 track among the inclusions), this disc gathers fifteen songs skewed towards the band’s first two incarnations. The informative liner notes detail how producer Jimmy Miller helped launch the original quartet, inventive and talented players in the right place at the right time. “Paper Sun” and “Heaven Is In Your Mind” find the band in full flowery psych mode, along with Dave Mason’s more single-oriented “Feelin’ Alright” and “You Can All Join In”. Although Mason’s “Hole In My Shoe” is one of the era’s trippiest headphone numbers, leader Steve Winwood sought a denser, more experimental direction for the band, which fellow members Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood also desired. The bluesy “Pearly Queen” and the more daring “Forty Thousand Headmen” found success with audiences as well. Goodbye Dave.

Steve Winwood’s soulful voice is the centerpiece of most of Traffic’s catalogue, and his transitional work with “Shanghai Noodle Factory” set the stage for the trio’s masterpiece, John Barleycorn Must Die. The four tracks included here could be from four separate worlds, yet in context sound seamless (“Glad” remains one of the best rock instrumentals ever recorded). The final two tracks, from Low Spark, feature the first of the expanded lineups the group would use for the remainder of its career. In the studio, each member of the trio played several instruments; with the larger band the complex music they composed could now be recreated on stage.

After Traffic broke up again, Winwood, like Mason (and at a quieter level, Capaldi) enjoyed a successful solo career. Chris Wood died in 1983, but a stripped down incarnation of the band (Winwood, Capaldi and bass player Rosko Gee) reunited in 1994 for Far From Home. While the concept of Traffic now seems to be an open forum for future collaborations, Feelin’ Alright is a solid testament to earlier genius.

(Note: The review was writtem in 2000. With Capaldi’s death in 2005, it’s safe to say that Traffic is now a closed book.)

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