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War Is Swell

'70s group that pioneered multicultural influences is enjoying newfound respect.

October 01, 1998|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In retrospect, you just have to admit the guys from War were on to something big.

Now that many pop bands are adding all sorts of influences to their music to qualify for hipness (such as Latin beats, jazzy inflections or unusual instruments from around the world), those old '70s albums by one of the first bands to practice rock 'n' roll multiculturalism actually make more sense than ever.

War, whose fall from grace in the '80s was as spectacular as its success during its million-selling days, is experiencing a sort of renaissance--its songs have been sampled to death by countless rappers and used frequently in movies and commercials.

"I feel honored that so many artists have either sampled our songs or recorded cover versions of them," said veteran singer and keyboardist Lonnie Jordan during an interview last week.

"And we're not done yet," he added. "In the new album we're recording right now, we are getting deeper into the roots of music and putting them all together in songs. I don't know how commercially successful it will be, but I can tell you it's a great record."

War will appear Saturday with Tower of Power at the Universal Amphitheatre. And the band will release its new album, "Perfect World," next year and tour extensively to support it.

Don't expect any new music on Saturday, however. Jordan is a firm believer in the virtue of satisfying the fans' thirst for nostalgia.

"I don't bore people with new stuff," he said candidly. "I don't even get into that. I stick to the greatest hits, the songs that people grew up with and make them reminisce. I wouldn't want to go to a concert and have my favorite entertainer playing new songs that I've never heard before. I can do that at home."

In any case, War has no shortage of hits with which to fill a concert. From the chunky sounds of the infamous "Low Rider" to the happy-go-lucky beat of "Why Can't We Be Friends?," the hits never stopped coming during the '70s. And the albums sold steadily, even when the band made eccentric decisions, such as putting out a record made up exclusively of previously released instrumental jams ("Platinum Jazz" in 1977).

"We never had any clue of how long-lasting our music would be," the singer said with a smile. "We knew it was street music, universal music, but we didn't know how well it would do on the radio. As a matter of fact, we didn't care. We thought that if we liked our stuff, other people would too."

Bringing foreign elements into pop rock wasn't a novel idea in the '70s. Santana had already mixed mystical rock 'n' roll guitars with rollicking Latin percussion, and groups as disparate as Weather Report and Chicago had created a bridge that connected jazz and rock.

But War stands alone among those groups because of the abandon with which it threw itself into exploring all kinds of music. This wasn't the case of a band making a statement by merging two contrasting genres into one. War created a rainbow of sounds, a platter of mixed flavors for the sophisticated palate. And given the magical chemistry that existed between its members, the results were always tasteful and party-friendly.

The Latin influence on War was huge in songs such as "Cinco de Mayo" and "Salsa."

"[Keyboardist] Papa Dee Allen spent a lot of time in New York during the late '60s," Jordan said. "He used to sit in and play with all the Latin greats: Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colon, Joe Cuba, just about everyone. I was happy when he joined the group, because the music I was always listening to was either calypso or Latin."

Interestingly, War started its long career by backing a white British singer. Eric Burdon from the Animals had called it quits and was looking for a new group. A seemingly temperamental artist, he recorded two albums with War before leaving the band in the middle of a 1971 tour.

"He was an emotional guy," said Jordan, trying to be diplomatic.

"Eric taught me a lot," he added. "He taught me about performing on stage in front of a large audience, back when I was young. I have to take my hat off for him. And his emotions actually helped him become what he was with the Animals. Afterward, he was honest enough to look for a more versatile group with which to perform. And that's when he bumped into us."

BE THERE

War, with Tower of Power. Saturday. Universal Amphitheatre. Show starts at 8:15 p.m. (818) 777-3931.

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