Friday, March 25, 2016

RE/AGAIN : Back in the High Life Again

Hey ho, at least I have the theme right this time, but what's an 'n' between friends? Martial/martian, I mean aren't they the same? (Editor now declares martian law on my future posts.) I confess this one too took me on the hop for a second, and I nearly filed a post of the chimp loving one time governor of California/President of the USA, sending me scuttling for the Woodstock soundtrack, but I digress.

Stev(i)e Winwood has always been one of my heroes. Old enough to remember the Spencer Davis Group on Top of the Pops, he was the impossibly young singer and, usually, hammond player who has notched up an incredible 54 years of musicianship since he joined that group. Still at school initially, aged 14, it took 3 years for his distinctive vocals to be number 1 on the UK singles chart with 'Keep on Running'. Playing guitar on that song, the success allowed him to buy his first Hammond B3 organ. Staying with the band a further 2 years, he co-wrote a number of their further hits, 'I'm a Man' and 'Gimme Some Lovin.' During this time, in 1966, he made his first collaborative contact with another musician to feature frequently in his musical life. This was a one-off project called the Powerhouse, who had 3 tracks on an Elektra compilation album about the emergent white boy electric blues scene. With 3 tracks featured, here is one of them, the collaborator being Eric Clapton.

Traffic were the band perhaps most widely associated with Winwood, coming together in 1967 following a chance jam in a Birmingham (UK) pub. Setting the archetype for 'getting together in the country', the original line-up shared a cottage in the sticks, coming up with the psychedelic whimsy of 'Hole in my Shoe', written, like most of their earlier hits, by Dave Mason. Personally, at least on these shores, this seemed somewhat of a shibboleth, detracting from their serious credibility, and Winwood's desire to pursue a more folk-blues direction, possibly contributing to the first fracture of the group. This had been accelerated by the return of Eric Clapton, who, following the break up of his own band, Cream, teamed up with Winwood in short-lived supergroup Blind Faith. Cream had not been to my then taste, so I didn't then take much to this, only later appreciating the simple beauty of the sole record released.

Blind Faith's (mis)fortune was ultimately the making of Traffic, who promptly re-formed, minus Mason, as the core line up of Chris Wood, Jim Capaldi and Winwood. The time was right for their folk-blues amalgam, their version of traditional folk song 'John Barleycorn Must Die' making this teenage folkie delight. Over several albums they expanded their line up and widened their repertoire, always innovative and always interesting, Winwood's expertise on guitar now getting as much acclaim as his keyboards. Sadly, with physical health issues playing havoc with his stamina, Winwood walked off-stage in 1974, the band then calling it a day.

A solo career was always going to beckon, but it was a few years before he produced his 1st solo album, 'Arc of a Diver', with this and its follow-up each featuring Winwood on all vocals and all-instrumentation. My favourite period of his career, the songs 'While You See a Chance' and  'Valerie', remaining firm favourites. It is thus strange that the song that this piece name-checks is only now one I enjoy, with Winwood having been roped into producing a top-notch session-men New York record. I recall being distinctly upset by this polished and commercial product, the follow-up single, 'Higher Love', with Winwood gamefully mugging his way through an awkward video, seeming bereft without the prop of an instrument other than his voice. It was certainly the High Life of his career though, the videos still a staple on oldies music channels.

After this peak he has continued to produce intermittent albums, even reviving the Traffic name once more for the now duo of himself and Capaldi, but keeping a generally lower profile. I was lucky enough to see him play live, maybe a decade ago, in Birmingham, on home turf. Playing mainly hammond and occasional guitar, a tight band modelled on the Traffic template of himself on keyboard, percussion heavy backing plus reeds, he played songs from all stages of his career. He did not play 'Hole in my Shoe', perhaps a blessing, but all the others were there. And he still looked impossibly young.

Since then intermittent output, but, inevitably, yes, a further and possibly final collaboration with Eric Clapton, recorded for posterity with a sort of joint greatest hits. It has to be a Traffic song I include.

So, apart from the title, what's this got to do with 'again'? Probably only this, one of the several covers of the song out there, this being Warren Zevon, slowing the song and maximising any irony available, his 'High Life" being the terminal cancer he was facing. And duly succumbed to. I think that trumps any irony Steve Winwood may have felt about the song as he sang it.

Retail! Winwood or Zevon

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