Summer, 1970, was a magnificent time for rock music: Among the albums released that spring and summer were Van Morrison’s Moondance, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Cosmo’s Factory, Fire and Water by Free, JT’s Sweet Baby James, Alone Together by former Traffic guitarist Dave Mason.
On Thursday, July 2nd, an unexpected surprise arrived at the local Band Box record store—a new album credited to Traffic. That quartet had broken up a year and a half earlier when bandleader Steve Winwood left to join forces with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in Blind Faith. There were rumors of a Winwood solo record after that “supergroup” imploded, but the album turned into a three-quarter Traffic reunion when drummer Jim Capaldi and flute & sax guy Chris Wood came in to help. The resulting album, John Barleycorn Must Die, is one of the great albums of the classic rock era.
Although only 22 years old at the time, Steve Winwood was already a well-established star in the rock and roll firmament. At the age of fifteen, he was singing lead and playing keyboards with the Spencer Davis Group, topping the British charts in 1965 with “Keep On Running.” Over the next couple of years they’d have two American Top-Ten hits, “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man,” both of which would become rock standards. The mightily soulful voice fronting those recordings had a strength and worldliness far beyond Winwood’s teenage youth.
When he formed Traffic in 1967, still only 19 years old, he created a flower power soundtrack that blended English folkiness with delta blues, sprinkled with jazz elements, that was distinctive and compelling. Song titles like “Berkshire Poppies,” “Paper Sun” and “Coloured Rain” fed the group’s summer-of-love hippie image. The early jam tune “Mr. Fantasy” and the flute-fed acoustic airiness of “40,000 Headmen” highlighted the wide range of musical influences swirling through the band’s music.
After the John Barleycorn reunion, Winwood expanded the band to create another masterwork, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, stretching the improvisational aspects always inherent in the group’s music over the course of the title track’s twelve minutes.
Flash forward forty years to the nTelos Pavilion in Portsmouth on Tuesday, May 22nd. After those halcyon days with Spencer Davis, Blind Faith and Traffic, Steve Winwood built up a strong catalog of solo pop hits: “Higher Love,” “Roll with It,” “While You See a Chance,” “Back in the High Life.” He even took a turn at being a blow-dried music video star in the mid ‘80s. Yet, in recent years, he’s preferred to mine his rich catalog of classic ‘60s and 70s songs for the bulk of his setlist.
Having just celebrated his 64th birthday earlier this month, his voice is as powerful and resonant as ever, with the added weight of a lifetime lived in or near the spotlight to deepen and enrich his instantly recognizable vocal timbre. Always a superb instrumentalist on keyboards and guitars, he and his touring band cook with a precision rarely found back in the day.
Besides his vocal and instrumental virtuosity, the most intriguing aspect of Steve Winwood’s music has been the way he brings together diverse elements to create a sound of his own.
“I've always tried to combine jazz with ethnic music with rock and folk,” he said in a 2008 interview, “and what would now be called world music, I guess. I was still really doing that in the mid-80s, but I think it was probably just given a production treatment which probably made it, in some people's minds, more of a pop sound.”
Whether singing those poppish songs of the MTV era or conjuring up incense-laced love and peace with his earlier material, Steve Winwood has grown beyond the sheer musicality of his lengthy Traffic jams to become a first class entertainer. His concert in Portsmouth gives Hampton Roadsters a chance to enjoy a night of nostalgia and fine music played by one of the true legends.
Tuesday, May 22nd – 8:00 pm
tickets: $20.00 – 69.00
copyright © 2012 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.