Steve Winwood’s career has gone through many phases. Casual listeners first discovered him in the 1980s when he was the middle-of-the-road king with slick hits like the Grammy winning “Higher Love,” “Valerie,” “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do,” and the Junior Walker soundalike, “Roll With It.”
But longtime fans were disappointed with this turn to blow-dried pop stardom, for Winwood had been involved in some of the best rock music of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. From the time he joined the Spencer Davis Group in 1963 at the age of fifteen until his final album with the trailblazing, genre-bending Traffic in 1974, Steve Winwood was an icon of the rock scene.
Next Tuesday night, he brings his current quintet to the Norva. You can be certain he’ll draw from every stage of his musical life—“I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin,” hit songs that he sang and co-wrote as the teenaged soul shouter with Spencer Davis; Traffic classics like “Pearly Queen,” “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and the “Glad/Freedom Rider” suite; he’ll surely throw in a couple of those ‘80s chart toppers along with a tune or two of more recent vintage.
And I suspect he may also pull something out from his ten-month stint with Blind Faith. That brief interlude in 1969 as one-fourth of the first “supergroup” produced three of his best compositions and added to his luster by putting him on equal footing with the already legendary Eric Clapton. The one recording the band issued contained a half-album’s worth of the classic rock era’s finest material.
At long last, the video of the group’s debut performance, a free concert staged in June of that year for 100,000 people in London’s Hyde Park, has been released on DVD. The strength of London Hyde Park 1969 is as much in its historical value as in its musical execution. The truth was that Blind Faith, for all its potential, didn’t spend enough time getting its act together before the forces of money and marketing propelled it into the public eye. Consequently, the playing is sloppy at times, the guys not quite certain how to end certain songs and the arrangements not fully worked out. In fact, Clapton was later reported to have been upset with the “ragged” quality of the show that day. But the mass assemblage loved it.
Watching it thirty seven years later, there’s still some of the magic of the era and a number of transcendent musical moments as well. I remember being disappointed at the time that Clapton didn’t sing any on the Blind Faith LP, but his explanation was that he thought Winwood was the better singer. It’s hard to quarrel with that assessment—one of the strengths of the video is his supremely soulful vocalizing.
And he and Clapton look so young! Winwood was barely 21 years old (he looks like he’s wrestling a case of acne), and Slowhand only 24, but they were both already rock-n-roll veterans. Drummer Ginger Baker was the old man of the group, a month shy of his 30th birthday, but looking weathered and worn in his flower-powered attire. Rick Grech was the unknown, recruited at the last minute to fill the bass chair, quietly holding his own stage right while the trio of megastars bashed away beside him.
We are blessedly spared the endless drum solo that filled up “Do What You Like” on the album, but the editing on that number is amateurish. The rest of the video flows fairly smoothly, taking us from the opener, Buddy Holly’s “Well All Right,” through the album’s four other tracks—Winwood’s “Sea of Joy,” “Can’t Find My Way Home,” “Had to Cry Today” and Clapton’s “Presence of the Lord”—with a nod to Cream on the old blues “Sleeping on the Ground” and Traffic’s “Means to an End,” plus a bluesy cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb.”
Though Clapton is in many ways the focus with his soaring guitar solos, he stays out of the spotlight, literally hiding behind the drums while Winwood wails to his left. The crowd shots take us back to the rock festival era, with madcap dancing, bubble blowing and English folk rocker Donovan boogalooing amongst the audience.
This DVD is an intriguing cultural document. For those of us who remember the summer of 1969, it’s a reminder of what was and what could have been—the summer of the moonwalk, Woodstock and Hair; the last blast of optimism before Chappaquiddick, Altamont and Kent State shattered the illusions of change-the-world optimism.
What began organically when Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton got together for the sheer love of making music ended in the disillusion and disenchantment of big hype, big money, big audience expectations and big stress. Nonetheless, London Hyde Park 1969 provides a fascinating glimpse at a mythical moment in time, the likes of which will probably not be seen again.
copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.