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O.C. POP BEAT / MIKE BOEHM

Winwood Proves There's Life After the 'High Life' : Although his last album didn't fare nearly as well as his two late-'80s hits, the veteran British rocker, who plays Friday at the Pacific Amphitheatre, just rolls with it.

May 09, 1991|MIKE BOEHM

Don't let it be said that Steve Winwood can't follow his own advice.

The veteran British rocker with the soulfully pleading voice hit it big in the late '80s with two platinum albums, "Back in the High Life" and "Roll With It."

But "Refugee of the Heart," the first release of Winwood's fourth decade in the pop limelight, met a comparatively flat commercial response after its release last fall, even though it carried forward the seamless, polished-to-a-gleam R&B sound of those earlier hits.

During a recent interview, Winwood, who plays Friday at the Pacific Amphitheatre, seemed undaunted by the changing currents of the music marketplace. In short, it seems he can roll with it.

"I just see it like being at sea in a storm. I just have to hold my course until the storm blows over," Winwood said of the new album's disappointing sales. "I've been incredibly lucky to just go on making music that pleases myself, and that some (albums) have been extremely successful. I can't expect them all to be like that."

Winwood has run into a few other turbulent spots lately. But as he discussed them over the phone from Nashville, the home town he adopted a few years ago to be closer to his wife's family, he sounded unruffled, speaking with a reserved but confident tone.

Last November, the song publisher of "(I'm a) Road Runner," a 1966 hit for Jr. Walker & the All Stars, sued Winwood and his songwriting partner, Will Jennings, for allegedly plagiarizing the oldie and turning it into the chart-topping single, "Roll With It." Some critics also have noted that "Come Out and Dance," a track from "Refugee of the Heart," sounds a lot like Peter Gabriel's 1986 hit, "Sledgehammer."

'I'm not allowed to comment on the ("Roll With It") case, but there will always be someone who claims something is similar to something else," Winwood said. "I don't steal songs off of people, I don't steal licks. I have influences, and my influences may be similar to Peter Gabriel's. Peter Gabriel himself has told me he was influenced by me. I don't take these (criticisms) seriously, because I'm not copying anybody."

If anything, Winwood said, his aim on "Refugee of the Heart" was to borrow from his own musical past. Winwood's back pages are anything but empty: The chapters include his incendiary work as the teen-age singer and organ player for the Spencer Davis Group, a brief but influential fling with the British super group Blind Faith, and his years fronting Traffic, which achieved some memorable and imaginative meldings of folk, jazz, R&B and psychedelic rock.

"I try to give each album something different," Winwood said. "I feel that on 'Refugee of the Heart' I've tried to employ certain elements of the late '60s and early '70s. It has certain Traffic-type elements to it, with longer songs, long musical passages, more atmospheric passages."

In some quarters, apparently, Winwood's old contributions have either been forgotten or ignored. A recent Rolling Stone magazine story about Charlatans U.K., one of the new crop of trendy bands from Manchester, England, found the group's singer claiming that it was breaking new ground by featuring a Hammond organ sound.

"We want to be the first great organ-based group in rock history. We're definitely the first ever," opined the young Charlatan, Tim Burgess, whose record collection apparently doesn't extend back to such organ-driven nuggets from Winwood's catalogue as "I'm a Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin' " from his Spencer Davis Group days, and "Empty Pages," from Traffic.

"That doesn't really bother me," Winwood said. "I'm proud of those songs. Young bands definitely need to have this self-motivational kind of chat. It's healthy that they (think they) are the only and the best. It's fine. Young bands need to have that because they come on the heels of such a long history of rock and R&B bands."

Burgess might have gotten a history lesson if he'd been at a party Winwood threw at his house in Nashville last month. One of the guests was Felix Cavaliere, whose organ wails and soulful singing for the Rascals during the '60s were an American parallel to the British blue-eyed soul that Winwood was helping to inaugurate across the Atlantic. Cavaliere now lives in Nashville, and he and Winwood met for the first time at the party and had a little jam session.

"We shipped a Hammond in and a drum kit. We did 'Groovin' ' and 'Gimme Some Lovin.' ' The old hits, plus a few blues songs."

* Steve Winwood and the Robert Cray Band featuring the Memphis Horns play Friday at the Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $27.50 and $19.80. Information: (714) 634-1300.

CALLING IT QUITS: Eggplant, whose two albums are among the best alternative-rock recordings to have come out of Orange County, will break up after playing two more concerts.

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