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The Road Gets Back Into Winwood's Blood

October 12, 1986|STEVE POND

Steve Winwood was calling from a hotel room in the Lone Star state, but for a minute he was hard-pressed to be any more specific than that.

"I'm in Texas, somewhere," said the veteran singer-songwriter with a laugh. "I'm not quite sure where, though. . . . Oh yeah, I think it must be Dallas."

The confusion is common enough: Lots of musicians lose track of cities when they're on a tour as big as Winwood's. It began almost two months ago, sets down in Southern California for a Santa Barbara County Bowl appearance on Friday, Universal Amphitheatre shows Saturday through Oct. 20 and a Pacific Amphitheatre date on Oct. 24, and continues until mid-1987.

But for Steve Winwood, road confusion was something he hadn't experienced in more than a dozen years. He can't even remember exactly when he last hit the road--all he knows for sure is that it was with the band Traffic, and he figures it was 1973 or 1974.

And now that he's back on the road, Winwood has a lot of ground to cover. His shows include "Gimme Some Lovin'," the Spencer Davis Group rave-up he originally wrote and sang at age 16; "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" and other favorites from his days as director of the eclectic, experimental but highly successful Traffic; and solo hits like 1980's "While You See a Chance" and the new "Higher Love," from his current "Back in the High Life" LP.

In fact, Winwood says the biggest audience reaction so far has come for 1986's "Higher Love" and 1967's "Gimme Some Lovin' "--"the newest and the oldest songs."

Lots of those cheers, he added, come from fans younger than "Gimme Some Lovin'." Said Winwood, 38, "Most of the audience is 20 to 30 and there's a smattering of my contemporaries. But there are also lots of fans as young as under 20, which I find really amazing.

"Maybe they think I wrote 'Gimme Some Lovin' for the Blues Brothers. Or maybe they don't even know I wrote it. As a matter of fact, the engineer on my new album is 22, and it wasn't until he came to a couple of shows that he even realized I wrote 'I'm a Man.' "

Not only did Steve Winwood write "I'm a Man"--or, perhaps, assemble the familiar-sounding song from some previously existing blues tunes--but there was a time when Winwood was one of British pop music's reigning prodigies.

He came out of Birmingham and, at 15, out of his brother's jazz band and into the world of rock 'n' roll, where fans and musicians were stunned by the pale teen-ager who sang like his idol, Ray Charles. He was already a junior legend by the time he left Davis to form Traffic with Dave Mason. For a spell, Traffic disbanded while Winwood joined Eric Clapton in the over-hyped supergroup Blind Faith.

Back then, he wasn't thinking about longevity. "It wouldn't have even occurred to me to think about being back on the road 20 years later," he said. "I never really gave it too much thought, though I knew I'd stay involved in music because I'm not really very good at anything else."

But when he disbanded Traffic in 1974, Winwood slowed his pace considerably. Since then he's recorded only four solo albums, seldom generating career momentum and moving at a pace as deliberate as much of the moody, lilting pop-soul music of albums like 1980's "Arc of a Diver" or 1982's "Talking Back to the Night."

"Sometimes I feel that in certain ways I'm very lucky, being, you know, an established artist," he said of that pace. "In certain respects it takes away a certain amount of pressure, and enables me to spend a bit more time and care on the things that maybe I wouldn't if I was just starting out."

But while his vocal style is still understated, almost effortless, and his new record is subdued enough to prompt critical labels like "tasteful make-out music for the upwardly mobile," "High Life" is undeniably more aggressive and more R&B- and dance-oriented than his previous work. It gave him a Top 5 hit, and it also gave him the impetus to try on a life style he long ago abandoned.

"One of the primary reasons for disbanding Traffic was to avoid having to make an album, go on the road, make an album, go on the road. . . ," he said. "I wanted to do other things within music, concentrate more on working in the studio and working on other people's records. Which I then proceeded to do. I recorded with all kinds of weird and wonderful people and made all kinds of strange albums, not one of which I regret doing."

Those projects included Go, an album and tour with Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta and keyboardist Klaus Schulze. He launched his solo career in 1977, and on his two subsequent LPs played all the instruments himself. And then he decided it was time for another change.

"When I was in the studio making 'Talking Back to the Night,' I found that I was spending a lot of time with equipment and computers, boards, engineering consoles and things like that," he said. "And I knew that I wanted to spend more time being an entertainer: playing and singing and writing."

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