By: Dennis Cook
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 it'll be alright when the skies all clear, 'cause we're all born to be free
"I try to lift people's spirits a little bit with what I write," says Steve Winwood, the classy, maddeningly talented veteran of more than 40 years in the music industry. "Particularly in rock today, there's a lot of dark and negative stuff in modern/contemporary lyrics and music. There's so much music that makes people feel worse rather than better. Instead of dampening people's spirits, it's better to raise them, don't you think?"
Artists choose what energies they put out into the world, either consciously or unconsciously, and few have injected more light, thoughtfulness or beauty into the scheme of things than this co-founder of Traffic and Blind Faith who got his professional start at the tender age of 15, shouting, "Gimme some lovin'." For a man who's played with giants like Eric Clapton and Tito Puente, Winwood is surprisingly humble, very gracious and perhaps even a little awestruck that he's still at it, chopping musical wood every day because it's just what his hands and heart were meant to do. His voice is soft and he considers his words with care. He saves his fire for his songs, raising the heat on his coolness when it serves a purpose, like say the immortal chorus of "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" or the tough slap down of "Freedom Overspill."
There's a joyous quality to Winwood's work that begins with his youth in the Spencer Davis Group and continues right up to his latest offering, Nine Lives (released April 29 on Sony), which seeks hope (and finds it) despite all the rough flotsam and jetsam life throws at us.
"If that comes across then there's a certain degree of personal success," says Winwood. "Music is a never ending learning process for me. Music is such a vast subject, and there's so much to learn and I'm mainly self-taught. This has been made quite obvious recently as I've been doing a few educational things and it's become evident to me how self-taught I am. That was mainly because there weren't educational opportunities in place when I was learning music. But really, I just keep learning about music all the time. I'm very lucky and blessed that I get to play music and do something I like for a living. It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to music."
Being self-taught has meant that Winwood hasn't ever conformed to standard approaches to his craft. Traffic willfully stuffed jazz, world music, blues and folk into rock's amplified body, and his explorations over the years have involved him with electronic music, Brazilian forms and much more, all a far cry from the usual model of a so-called pop musician.
"I've been talking to some music teachers – really teachers of all subjects – and they say, particularly in music, what they want the students to do is rubbish the teachers, go off in some other direction from what they've been taught," offers Winwood. "But, unless they're taught, educated, they won't really know exactly what that direction was."
If Winwood lacks some formal training, he's more than made up for it with a street education that's included Clapton, Ginger Baker, George Harrison, James Taylor and Christina Aguilera, amongst a donkey choking list of other luminaries.
"I've always tried to learn from the people I've played with, and I've been lucky enough to play and write with some truly incredible musicians," says Winwood. "In the '70s, I spent nearly all of that decade working on other people's projects. A lot of that time was spent learning about recording, songwriting, the construction of songs and albums and how other people work. It was very enlightening."
A spirit of collaboration infuses a good deal of Winwood's catalog. While he's a fine solo artist and bandleader in his own right, he seems to thrive mightily in the company of equally talented, strong willed creators.
"It is possible to make good music on your own but I think the real joy of music comes out when the experience is shared playing with others. Music is about interaction with other people," Winwood says.
While he acknowledges that he's had a "somewhat fragmented career" where audiences know one part, say his '80s "Back In The High Life Again" period or Blind Faith, but there's large gaps due to his creative wandering. However, real musicians rarely hear things in neat categories or stay a single course throughout a lifetime. Within Winwood is the Mod charge of "Keep On Running," the unfiltered warmth of "Higher Love" and the despondency of "(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired."
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Photo of Blind Faith
I just keep learning about music all the time. I'm very lucky and blessed that I get to play music and do something I like for a living. It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to music.
"Something I've strived to do since the early Traffic days is combine different elements of music – rock, folk, jazz – to try and create something that's different. That's something I've always tried to do, and still try for to this day," says Winwood. "In many respects, I'm a rock musician but I'm not sure the music I play is rock. The intention is to share one's musical mind but whether I always achieve that or not I'm not sure [laughs."
Winwood recently reunited with Eric Clapton in a series of shows that revisited their Blind Faith material for the first time in a serious way since the early '70s. Given the band's abrupt, fractious end, for many fans that project always seemed like unfinished business.
Winwood & Clapton :: 02.25.08 :: MSG by Gene Shaw|
"It was. I think Blind Faith came unstuck a bit when we played live. We came under a lot of pressure from executives to modify the music when we played live, and that was our undoing in many ways because it led to a lot of dissatisfaction," observes Winwood. "I think we did manage to get on the record what was our initial idea for the band. Luckily, the record sort of stands up for what we wanted to achieve."
"For Eric and I, the question was raised early on when we were planning these shows about whether this would or would not be a Blind Faith reunion. It was decided that it wouldn't be," continues Winwood. "It was a re-collaboration between Eric and myself that would allow us to touch on music from throughout both of our careers and not just limited to Blind Faith."
A number of his compositions like "Low Spark" and "Dear Mr. Fantasy" have become part of the fabric of the jam band world, taking on new lives in the hands of other musicians.
"I'm quite happy for other bands to cover my material," says Winwood. "It's interesting to hear other people play my songs. For instance, when we did Jim Capaldi's tribute concert a couple years ago there were lots of guests on tunes Jim and I had written together. Through other people's interpretations of them I actually learned quite a bit. And the other day we did the [David] Letterman show and they've got a great band that was playing versions of my songs. I listened to how they approached them and then later perhaps I may use a little bit of what they do in my approach to these songs."
Winwood holds an electric guitar on the cover of Nine Lives, a reminder of his six-string prowess. Though much more recognized as a keyboardist, his affinity for guitar, and sometimes blinding skill with one, goes back to the very beginning of his musical life.
"The last album, About Time , was the first time I didn't play guitar at all. So, on this one I felt it was okay to have the guitar, though I'm still playing quite a bit of organ," Winwood says. "It doesn't always work in my favor that I'm both a guitarist and a keyboardist. People don't know what to think of me as. One thing I love about the [Hammond] B-3 is it enables me to play the bass on it at the same time, which gives me a bit more control over the sound of the band."
This summer will find Winwood on the road with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers starting May 30 in Grand Rapids, MI. Plans are already in place for the two bands to intermingle during this tour, so we can begin speculating on what "I'm A Man" might sound like with Petty belting out the machismo or how "Forty Thousand Headmen" would change with Mike Campbell guesting on guitar or even how "Runnin' Down A Dream" could pick up speed with Winwood chapping the Heartbreakers asses on guitar or organ. Happy thoughts all.
"We got the offer from Tom to open for him, and it will be interesting to see how his audience reacts to what I'm doing. I know it's a slightly different demographic so we'll see what happens with that," laughs Winwood.
On a brave new morning, smiling at the sky
Every shadow of the past whispers goodbye
There is hope, if you can see
Here's a slice of vintage Winwood with Traffic doing "Dear Mr. Fantasy" live in Santa Monica in 1972:
And here's he is with Eric Clapton and Derek Trucks doing "Can't Find My Way Home" at the 2007 Crossroads Festival:
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