Winwood’s Revolutions

Steve Winwood’s a cool dude in my book. I’ve always gotten a positive vibe from his music, both with Traffic (see my earlier essay) and a lot of his solo stuff, partly because I associate much of it with happy memories, and also because it has an infectious, soulful purity. He was never a poser or proselytizer, just a talented fellow who was into simply being a musician, either on his own or as a journeyman at large. Best known as an organist, he can work all kinds of keyboards, plus guitar, bass, etcetera, and he has one of the most distinctive voices ever. He knows the value of the concise pop-rock song and the extended jam, having helped establish legendary templates for both in the 1960s. Even though I’ve not pursued everything he’s done, and I don’t listen to him regularly, Winwood has never been out of fashion for me. If he’s ever gone wrong in my view, it’s not been offensively wrong, and a lot of what he got right endures as classic.

June 2010 saw the release of Revolutions, a 4CD career spanning box set that serves as sort of an update to 1995’s The Finer Things set, which is currently out of print. (Revolutions is also available as a single disc compilation, but it’s a tough job shoehorning the best of Winwood’s solo and band work into that small space.) Despite already owning the earlier box, plus however many Traffic discs over the years, I couldn’t resist getting Revolutions, as it had some tracks that were new to me, and I was curious about the remastering. Turned out to be a good, affordable set, although these comprehensive boxes always leave a stone or two unturned.

Disc One: Keep On Running, Somebody Help Me, Gimme Some Lovin, I’m a Man

Of course, one has to start with some chestnuts from the Spencer Davis Group. These are all catchy songs featuring fevered Winwood vocals, and the percussive layers of the last two tracks foreshadow the sound of some future arrangements he would do. Never the most pristine recordings to begin with, I reckon they come across as well here as anywhere else.

Paper Sun, Coloured Rain, No Face No Name No Number, Heaven is in Your Mind, Smiling Phases, Dear Mr Fantasy, Pearly Queen, Forty Thousand Headmen, No Time to Live, Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring, Shanghai Noodle Factory, Medicated Goo, Withering Tree

A gaggle of early Traffic that differs slightly from the selections on The Finer Things and 2005’s Gold compilation. Any of the three might be said to contain all the Traffic you’ll ever need, plus or minus a track or two. In this case, the Dave Mason-centric tunes like “You Can All Join In” and “Feelin’ Alright” are absent. Soundwise, there are a few differences between these remasters and those on Gold; for example, “What Tomorrow May Bring” has more bass here, while “Medicated Goo” has less. The acoustic guitars on “Shanghai” are clearer than before. Tracks like “Heaven” and “Smiling Phases” have more “body,” i.e., they’re a bit louder, but not to a detrimental degree, and for that matter the quiet bits (like the intro of “Pearly Queen”) remain quiet. Tough to make any blanket statement about the sound of early Traffic, because the original mixes can be so different from each other – one might focus on a rich organ sound, another might put percussion and sax in the foreground, and the vocals can take up all kinds of positions. One obvious problem is the distortion that plagues “No Time To Live”; I don’t have the self-titled Traffic album (1968) handy to compare, but this appears to be an artifact of the original recording and not a result of remastering.

Well All Right, Can’t Find My Way Home, Presence of the Lord

I never owned the Blind Faith album, but I’ve heard most of it in different places. “Can’t Find My Way Home” is a captivating ballad with some beautiful high-register singing; I prefer this acoustic arrangement to the electric version found on The Finer Things. “Well All Right” rocks along quite well. “Presence of the Lord” doesn’t do much for me until the huge guitar riff rips its way into the picture.

Disc Two: Stranger to Himself, John Barleycorn, Glad, Freedom Rider, Empty Pages, Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, Rainmaker, Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory, Something New, Walking in the Wind, When the Eagle Flies, Mozambique

Traffic Redux, 1970-4. These songs select themselves, though “Low Spark” features a different mix. Starting with a previously unheard percussion/piano/sax warm-up, the song itself is basically the same performance as the album version, only with different instrument levels and stereo perspective, and Chris Wood’s sax makes some surprising appearances during the central organ/piano solos. I prefer the original version, but this is an interesting alternative. Most everything else sounds un-tinkered with, and a little beefier. (“Shoot Out” finally has some low end to underscore those nasally midrange guitars.) Tucked in at the end is “Mozambique”, the nifty instrumental from 1994’s Far From Home, a nominal Traffic reunion of Winwood and Jim Capaldi.

Disc Three: Vacant Chair, While You See a Chance, Arc of a Diver, Spanish Dancer 2010, Night Train, Valerie

“Vacant Chair” is a likeable choice from Winwood’s first solo record of 1977, followed by four gems from 1980’s true one-man effort Arc of a Diver. “While You See a Chance”, the title track, and the disco-driving “Night Train” are all terrific muso-pop, as is “Spanish Dancer” – but lo, this is a totally remade “Spanish Dancer”, more earthy than electronic. The song and all the attendant instrumental lines are still the same, just rendered on acoustic guitars and percussion instead of synthesizers and drum machines. While this is a nice remake, the original has an irreplaceable atmosphere, and it’s a shame that both versions couldn’t be included. All they had to do was bump the new one to Disc Four and sequence the original with its Diver brethren here. Meanwhile, “Valerie” (from 1982’s Talking Back to the Night) is the original album version, not the dressed-up revamp from 1987’s Chronicles collection. All of these tracks sound good to me, maybe a bit bright, but Diver was not a particularly warm studio creation in the first place.

Higher Love, Freedom Overspill, Back in the High Life Again, Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do, Spy in the House of Love

Further pop success came with Back in the High Life (1986) and Roll With It (1988), and whether or not Winwood “fell prey” to being more commercial, the songwriting and class musicianship never took a backseat. “Freedom Overspill” sounds just as badass to me now as it did when it came out. The song “Roll With It” is inexplicably absent, though it appears on the single disc edition of Revolutions. Where’s the logic in that? Other omissions from High Life and Roll With It include “The Finer Things”, “Holding On”, and if I had my druthers, “Split Decision”. I must say that the tracks here sound really good in remastered form, though. “Spy in the House of Love”, from 1997’s Junction Seven, feels too much like something Winwood could have written in his sleep, overproduced and wth a repetitive title refrain. I’m surprised “One and Only Man” from 1990’s Refugees of the Heart didn’t make the cut, as it was a solid radio-friendly number. At least the other worthy track from Refugees is present on Disc Four.

Different Light, Dirty City

A couple of songs from 2003’s About Time and 2008’s Nine Lives respectively. “Different Light” percolates with a slick Latin groove and the vocal can’t help but sound good on top. Eric Clapton guests on “Dirty City”, a dark, slow groove that ventures into a brighter vamp at one point. Mildly entrancing if not great.

Disc Four: This Hammer, Waltz for Lumumba, When I Come Home

The fourth disc jumps into a mini-chronology of its own; perhaps these were “also rans” or Steve’s personal favorites. It starts with three Spencer Davis Group tracks – one traditional song, one organ-led instrumental, and one popster that fits the mold of the SDG selections on Disc One.

Love, In the Light of Day

Wow, how did Winwood know to include a couple of my personal faves? “Love” is a short Traffic jam from When the Eagle Flies, a casual groove (“Playing in E, Steve?”) with a vocal verse tacked on. “In the Light of Day” is a hidden epic from Refugees of the Heart. This nine-minute piece builds upon a mesmerizing drum program and has a dramatic air, almost as if Peter Gabriel’s “San Jacinto” met mid-period Traffic.

There’s a River, Hold On, The Morning Side

Odds and ends, wot? “There’s a River” is a rather dull hymnic song from Talking Back to the Night. I would have preferred the title track from that album; strange it’s not in this collection anywhere. “Hold On” is from Steve’s solo debut and swirls with middle of the road 1970s-ness in a good way. “The Morning Side” comes from Roll With It, a totally random inclusion it would seem, yet I have a soft spot for certain moments in this song that rise above the ‘moody ballad’ torpor. Nonetheless, the pace starts to slow around here...

Far From Home, Holy Ground, State of Grace

Three cuts from the 1994 Traffic album Far From Home, and here’s where the sequencing of Disc Four becomes problematic. “Far From Home” is a good piece, but it begins with the same sort of hypnotic drum pattern that runs through “In the Light of Day” a few tracks earlier. “Holy Ground” is another static hymn that has no business being so close to “There’s a River”. Winwood should have chosen one or the other, or in my opinion, neither. “State of Grace” is nice enough, especially when it rhythmically picks up towards the end, but by this point we’ve got three lengthy, homogenous selections from Far From Home that don’t represent the variety that album had to offer. (Not counting the energetic “Mozambique” back on Disc Two.) Why didn’t “Here Comes a Man” make the cut? I mean, Far From Home isn’t a great album, but neither is it as draggy as these three excerpts would make it seem.

Why Can’t We Live Together, Domingo Morning

Two more from About Time. “Why Can’t We Live Together” is the old Timmy Thomas song with the pleading vocal and stabbing organ motif; Winwood’s cover adds some percussion and other details but retains the song’s sparse atmosphere, and his singing and organ work are perfectly ace. He performs this song so astoundingly well he could have written it himself. “Domingo Morning” is more lightly propelled Latin fare in line with “Different Light”, again with great organ work. I like the song, though it seems odd as the grand finale of the whole boxset. (I would have rejigged things to make “Spanish Dancer 2010” the very last track.)

Final words: There’s a lot of essential Steve Winwood in this box, and in the end, I’d rather celebrate what it does contain instead of moaning about what it doesn’t. The earlier box set The Finer Things painted a more revealing picture in some ways, particularly due to the inclusion of some of Winwood’s work with Stomu Yamashta and the non-album Blind Faith tracks, and it had a few more Spencer Davis and Traffic items as well. Revolutions draws from a larger pool of material and adjusts its contents accordingly. There’s still plenty of variety here, though no rarities (unless you count the alternate “Low Spark”). I’m not very keen on the booklet; it has a nice essay featuring comments from the artiste, but no listing of which track came from which album and no outside musician credits. I already know what’s what and who’s who from owning many of the albums before, but it’s silly that a newcomer would have to do outside research to get such basic information that ought to be included in the documentation. Anyway, Revolutions is a good value and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t already own everything herein. (If you’re only interested in Traffic, though, go for the Gold.)

EDIT 4/18/11: I have since purchased About Time and Nine Lives on the strength of the songs included in the above set, and both are wonderful albums. The former contains one tight groove-based song after another, pausing for a couple of reflective moments along the way (“Horizon” is a virtual rewrite of King Crimson’s “Moonchild”). Perhaps one might tut that the tracks don’t have much drama or dynamics, but hearing Winwood and his trusty Hammond organ back in a virtually live-in-the-studio zone is reward enough. About Time has even more of a wizened feel; again funky for the most part, it also boasts some bluesy swagger (“I’m Not Drowning”) and includes two of the most elevatingly beautiful tunes he has ever recorded, “Fly” and “Other Shore”. I think these two records represent the rejuvenation of one of rock’s most lasting artists, and with any luck, he’s not done yet.

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