SMILING PHASES

STEVE WINWOOD

How do you approach the catalogue of an artist active over many decades in several different outfits who has a substantial solo output to boot? That’s the question I’ve been pondering, on and off, since a blogmate expressed interest in reading a little about the career of one of the great rock singers, Steve Winwood. It’s a fascinating history that spans most of the major movements of popular music in the 60s, 70s and 80s and is remarkable both for the diversity of musical styles and the unity achieved via the constant of Steve Winwood’s voice.

PART I

Young Stevie was a veteran musician long before he was old enough to get into pubs or drive a car. At fifteen he was playing in the Muff Woody Jazz Band with his older brother. That’s where he met Spencer Davis who was keen to invite both brothers to join his eponymous group. They did so, with the youngest member contributing lead guitar, lead vocals, organ, piano, and harmonica. There is a hint of the teenager’s precocious talent right there, in 1963.

In 2009 a live album of Winwood and Eric Clapton marked some forty-six years in the business. That’s career longevity in anyone’s language.

If you were setting up a Steve Winwood section in your very own record shop, you could do it with the following sub-sections:

Spencer Davis Group

Traffic

Blind Faith

More Traffic

Solo

Collaborations

Guest appearances

But that might be a tad daunting for the casual listener, for whom compilations are an obvious starting place.

WINWOOD vinyl compilation

First up is the chunky 1972 United Artists double LP; twenty-one tracks outlining the work with Spencer Davis (eight tracks), early Traffic (the essentials well covered in six songs), Blind Faith (just ‘Sea of Joy’) and reformed Traffic (three). The curious vinyl-addict could do a lot worse than this collection (if they can find it).

Winwood UA comp, back

The Island compilation Keep On Running (1991) has seventeen songs, with less Spencer Davis and less mid-period (and no later) Traffic. A couple of tracks from the first solo album (1977’s self-titled disc) are welcome, as is the fabulous African collaboration ‘Happy vibes’. But the choice of ‘Well alright’ (a cover version) from the Blind Faith album is odd and later Traffic is not well-served.

Steve Linwood Keep on Running CD

Island were back in the compilation business with a vengeance in 1995 with the 4CD set The Finer Things. As you would expect from such a set, all bases are covered adequately. A couple of rarities are thrown into the mix —the most interesting being two songs from the 1969 Hyde Park performance of Blind Faith— and though Winwood aficionados might quibble about some of the choices (three tracks from When the Eagle Flies? Really?) it is an excellent document of a rich and varied career, one bound together by the truly marvellous voice and versatile instrumental skills of Mr Winwood. You see, it’s not just the singing. Winwood’s guitar has always been under-valued ; perhaps because of his association with Eric Clapton, but he is thoughtful and has his own voice. On keyboards, Winwood’s strength is organ, and his playing is subtle and excellent in these varying contexts. Indeed, so well-respected was Winwood’s organ work that he was regularly invited to play with other artists, leading to credits that cover everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Christine McVie.

Steve Winwood - The Finer Things 4CD

When, in 2010, Island decided to once again compile Steve Winwood’s music, they once again opted for a four CD set. A fourth disc of ‘Rarities’ of various value means that the officially released music is reduced to three discs, resulting in less coverage or some areas than the ’95 box. With typical record company guile, a single CD version of the comp was also released with two (non-rare) songs not on the 4CD version. How do the minds of these people work?

The Finer Things - booklet

Booklet photo from The Finer Things set

If you are an album orientated person, the whole compilation idea is slightly distasteful. If an artist is worth having, they’re worth having on original albums. Right? Well, mostly. I’ve never been tempted to collect the original Spencer Davis Group albums (of which there were three during Winwood’s tenure). The 1967 compilation that was released after his departure has met my needs adequately so I’ve never been tempted to pay big bucks for patchy ‘coming of age’ LPs. As a result I cannot offer much in the way of deep cuts from the original SDG.

Spencer Davis Group Best

PART II

According to rock legend, Traffic were the first band to rent a cottage in the English countryside and go bush to get their collective musical heads together whilst getting off their collective faces. Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason, and Chris Wood decamped to rural Berkshire and forged a sound that included pop, psychedelic, jazz and R&B influences. How you feel about this first phase of Traffic will probably depend on how you feel about music from the multi-hued 1966—1969 period generally. I consider the first two albums (Mr Fantasy and Traffic) most enjoyable and interesting, though not without ‘of their times’ songs (like ‘Berkshire poppies’). It is tempting to skip Last Exit —the final album before Dave Mason split and the band temporally dissolved— due to the unremarkable live second side that screams ‘filler’ over a concert-sized PA. But then you miss the sublime ‘Shanghai Noodle Factory’, surely one of Winwood’s finest vocal performances. It’s tricky, but if pushed, I’d say get Mr Fantasy —preferably the Island Remasters version that includes both the original UK and the quite different US release— and take it from there. If that album feels enough of a paisley 60s trip for ya, move on.

Traffic Linwood Mr Fantasy Last Exit

You probably know the next bit. Our man formed a quartet with guitar demigod Eric Clapton and drumming curmudgeon Ginger Baker, both fresh from a curdled Cream, and recruited ex-Family bass player Rick Grech. They made one uneven but significant album, Blind Faith, and split up. A personal piece on Blind Faith was an early post at Vinyl Connection; find it here. For all its smattering of low points (Ginger’s interminable drum solo on ‘Do what you like’, for instance), the album is historically important and musically worthwhile. ‘Had to cry today’ and ‘Can’t find my way home’ both utilise the band’s talents superbly to deliver yearning, moving songs. In a way the paradox of the Blind Faith album is that although I would only award it 3 ½ stars, I’d rate it essential for anyone serious about the story of rock.

Blind Faith

A 1969 LP-sized picture book offering an alternative cover for the Blind Faith album. Much more tasteful.

After the ‘supergroup’ imploded, Winwood joined Ginger for his first Airforce project before returning to the studio in 1970 to work on his first solo album. Perhaps feeling less than all right after all that band activity, Steve invited Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood to all join in and presto! a new Traffic album was born.

And that is where our story of the High Heeled Boys will resume.

30 comments

  1. Very little Winwood here (I’ve got one Traffic album but it hasn’t really caught me yet). I watched a good BBC4 doc on him a while back and it put me in mind to check out more of his career so I’ll be taking notes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hope it offers a bit of a map through the Winwoodwilderness!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m already tempted by that Finer Things set.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Not very deep into the Winwood discography, but i love the feel of Blind Faith, got it back in the mid 70’s with the nude cover. As you say completely “essential”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope you enjoy the next instalment!

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  3. douglasharr · · Reply

    Ive always loved WINWOOD, particularly the Traffic era – nice way to cover all this, detailing different releases that span his career…thanks for that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A pleasure. Certainly as I looked at the number of albums, the depth of the catalogue was a trifle daunting. That’s why it has ended up being a multi-section post!

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  4. Nice work as always, VC!

    No Spencer Davis Group or Winwood solo here. From Traffic, I have the Heaven Is in Your Mind version of the first album and the one with which you will open Part II. I really like them both, but to date have not felt drawn to seek more for whatever reason. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is one of my all-time favorite guitar songs. I concur fully with your take on Blind Faith, and I still pull it out regularly. That 2009 live DVD with Eric Clapton is actually my go-to Winwood; I find myself moved and awe-struck watching and listening to it.

    So, someday I’ll tell the story of sitting next to Mr. Winwood in the business section of a transatlantic flight circa 2003. Unfortunately I don’t come out looking too cool, so it may be a while before I actually place the thin gruel into the historical record. I guess my fear is that recording it will prove once and for all that I am what I was (although that may actually be preferable to finding out that I am what i am…..)

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Edit: “…and the one with which you will open Part III.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cheers VotF. A mate has that DVD; must borrow it some time.

        I’ve seen Winwood live twice. The first time, in the 90s, I was with two male companions who I abandoned in their seats to move closer to the stage. I’d like to think I ambled rather than rushed a-panting, but I’m not sure. By dint of some strategic wriggling I got close enough to the stage to really feel the gulf that eternally separates performer from fan. It was a bitter sweet experience. How I would go in the intimate surroundings of Business Class, I have no idea. And that’s just dealing with the flash service. Add a music hero into the mix and I shudder to think the many ways I could embarrass both parties. So. Well primed for your story now…

        PS. I’ve got a story of bottom-clenching discomfort I’ve been, er-hem, sitting on for a while. I’ll tell mine…

        PPS. Dear Mr Fantasy is indeed fabulous. I really like the Grateful Dead version on ‘Without a Net’.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. ’66-’69 was rather multi-hued, well said Bruce!
    I’ll be revisiting this post when I get to his 1001 inclusions (2 traffics + Arc of a diver)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry about the delay in replying, Geoff. Needed to find a few minutes to consult my copy of your bible!
      OK. No argument with either of the 1001 Traffic choices: the second album (simply Traffic) is probably the pick of the first phase while John Barleycorn will lead off my Part 2 with high commendations.
      As for the solo stuff, Arc of a Diver is a fine choice; obvious but excellent, if you get my drift.
      Better get on with writing the second instalment

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No need to apologize if the good 1001 book was being consulted – thanks for the phase details, I eagerly await part deux!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Good survey. My sister had that brown Winwood 2-lp set way back when. A pretty good comp for its day but like a lot of early collections, it seemed to get superseded as did “History of Eric Clapton” and “Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the curse and the commerce of compilations, isn’t it? Thanks for dropping by Rick. More Winwood on the way…

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  7. Great post, Bruce. I mentioned over at Rich’s place that the only Winwood I own is Arc Of A Diver (a gift from a friend a few years back). I keep meaning to check out more, but the man has done so much it can be a little overwhelming trying to work out where to start! You guys have helped draw a line …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad it was helpful, J.
      Hopefully Part 2 will arrive sometime soon and complete (or at least extend) the picture.

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  8. This is a fantastic primer for the uninitiated, Bruce. I’ve been a Winwood fan (all phases of his career) for 30+ years, but I often forget just how ridiculously talented he is when I go through periods of not listening to his music. Then I play just one album and I’m reminded that he’s one of the great artists of his generation…and beyond. My only quibble with your post is the apparent slagging of When The Eagle Flies. I wasn’t aware of that album (which was unavailable in the US for a long time) until my first trip to the UK in 1995 when I found a copy of the CD. I just played it a few days ago after revisiting Back In The High Life for my Thirty Year Thursday post, and it reinvigorated my appreciation for that record.

    I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on the next phase of his career, especially the ’90s album released under the Traffic name which was almost indistinguishable from his solo work at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Rich. Much appreciated.
      With When the eagle flies, I wonder if it would be too simplistic to note how we came from different directions. You ‘discovered’ a hidden treasure some twenty years after its released and (rightly) revelled in more music by an admired band. I travelled somewhat more downwards after the high-point of Low Spark through Shoot Out to Eagle, which felt like a rather sluggish final movement after what had come before. But I will spin it again, knowing that I might have to return and eat my words!

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      1. Good point about the different paths we took to When The Eagle Flies. My favorite Traffic albums are John Barleycorn and Low Spark, but there’s a lot to love on all their records. I didn’t notice any sluggishness as their discography progressed. I think we both agree what a special artist he is, and both of our recent posts reminded me that he’s not as revered as many of his contemporaries. Sadly, he likely won’t be reappraised until he’s gone, which I hope is a long long time from now.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. For me Steve Winwood is one of those artists who creeps up on you. It starts with “nice song”, goes on to “that’s another good track – must investigate one day” and finally you think “this guy is one of the greats”. Unforgivably I only have a Traffic compilation (The Collection) in my music library. But I do also own a DVD of that 1969 Blind Faith concert in Hyde Park. It’s one of my most treasured possessions – because I was there. I blogged about it over on Stoney Fish Tales back in 2011 in a post called “Inappropriately Dressed” and it makes a nice little story. Here’s a link: https://stoneyfish.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/inappropriately-dressed/

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    1. Aquire more Winwood immediately. The gods of rock expect nothing less.

      And a rather sweet story, Mr Stoneyfish; thanks for sharing.

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  10. I enjoyed this but he’s not someone whose music I’m ever drawn to. I’ve had Traffic and his solo stuff piled on me by well-wishers but I’m afraid, apart from the greatest hits, none of it has ever really taken in my, umm, soil.

    My fault, not his – I have no doubts on that front.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess the voice is the key distinguishing feature – if that doesn’t grab you, none of Mr W’s output will. Still, there may be something in the next batch you could enjoy. Not least an excellent live album!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You know what a closet case I am for live Lps’

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Winwood’s music has so much soul, whether it’s R&B, jazz, folk, rock, pop. He’s covered all the bases and excelled at all of them. And highly respected by other greats. I’m still looking for a vinyl copy of his “Go” project with Stomu Yamashta and Michael Shrieve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’ll be going ‘GO’ next week…

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  12. CB is a Winwood guy. I think i have most of what he’s recorded (except early SD albums). Princess Falda (CB’s daughter) just gave her old man a Traffic cd. I’m just reading what you have to say and agreeing. Special guy that makes real good muc=sic. Like I said, a CB fave and staple.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I once commented that I’d buy an album of Winwood singing the telephone book. Only a slight exaggeration!

      Like

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