Traffic jammer

In 1963, at the tender age of 15, Steve Winwood joined the Spencer Davis Group. In doing so, he founded an elite fraternity that would later come to include Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and the now-late, great George Harrison.

From their teenage years forward, all three of these musicians would know nothing but the rock-star life.

By ’65, Winwood had jumped ship from Spencer Davis, hopping on board with Traffic. The British keyboardist’s new band blew the establishment out of the water two years later with its debut release, Mr. Fantasy (Island); the title track alone is astonishing — one of the most soul-fueled slices of timelessness ever.

Back then, Traffic excelled at exploratory, organic, epic music, both in the studio and onstage — as did their contemporaries Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and (perhaps, occasionally) the Dead.

Winwood’s most memorable songs (“Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” “Light Up or Leave Me Alone”) offered an early, airtight argument for the relevance — the necessity — of the 10-minute-plus jam.

The keyboardist also found time to jam with Hendrix (who was then living in England); Winwood’s organ appears on the most famous recording of the guitar god’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” the monster version from Electric Ladyland (Reprise, 1968).

Appropriately enough, Winwood’s own splendid live version of the Hendrix classic now appears on a bonus disc that comes included with the limited-edition version of his latest solo release, last year’s About Time. The rest of the CD combines Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms with the satisfying fullness of Winwood’s Hammond B-3 organ, plus plenty of reflective, yet precise, rock guitar to round things out.

But that’s jumping ahead: Back in 1969, Winwood helped form modern rock’s first super-group, Blind Faith. The keyboardist teamed with guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Rick Grech and drummer Ginger Baker to produce what is simply among the most profound rock releases of all time.

Blind Faith’s self-titled album (their only one) loosed upon the world some of the most engaging and haunting songwriting of any decade, including “Can’t Find My Way Home” and the occasionally face-peeling groove of the 15-minute opus “Do What You Like.”

Two live records from Traffic’s later years, Welcome to the Canteen (Island, 1970) and On the Road (Polydor, 1973), offer a fine taste of the band’s imperative, exploratory sound — one that still resonates in Winwood’s approach to music today. (It’s little wonder that the Dead, Widespread Panic and Phish made Traffic tunes essential parts of their touring repertoire.)

Then, of course, came the ’80s, and the real ignition of Winwood’s solo career. The decade began promisingly enough with Arc of a Diver (Island, 1980), but his career devolved into a lightweight string of pop hits that eventually had Winwood plastered all over MTV and Top-40 radio, and even won him a Grammy (in 1986).

After some downtime in the ’90s (minus some Traffic reunion shows and a couple of commercially unsuccessful solo releases), Winwood has executed an almost-perfect circle with his latest excursion. The new album returns him to the grounded — and infinitely more interesting — sonic explorations of his Traffic days.

For better or worse — and perhaps inevitably — Winwood now finds himself among the numerous elder statesmen suddenly embraced by the modern jam-band scene (even though, as he pointed out to Xpress recently, he predates the term). Fittingly, Winwood teamed with String Cheese Incident’s SCI Fidelity Records for his About Time, and says he couldn’t be happier with the results.

Here’s more of Winwood, in his own words, from our recent phone interview:

Mountain Xpress: “To begin, let’s talk about the new album a little bit. The title, About Time, seems like a good place to start. A lot of folks have commented that this album and the sound of it are a bit of a return to the Traffic days, in terms of feel at least. Does the title itself work into that thought at all?”

Steve Winwood: “Yeah (pause). I suppose. We thought that the title was a bit multi-faceted. I think that a major thing about the record is that I went back to more of a traditional way, or old-fashioned way, I suppose, of recording. Which is everybody in the studio at the same time making and playing music. Which sounds ridiculously obvious. But really, a lot of records aren’t made like that. In fact, I hadn’t made a lot of records like that for a good 20 years. Obviously, I started off making records like that, because that was the only way that they were made in the ’60s. So it was a bit of a return to a more traditional, old-fashioned way of making and playing, with everybody in the studio: minimal overdubs, no loops, no clicks or anything like that. And also with About Time I had this idea of combining more world-music rhythms with the Hammond organ, which tended to make quite a more rhythmic type of music — and rhythm, after all, is about time, so we thought that it was the right title for it.”

MX: “In addition to Jose (Neto, guitar) and Walfredo (Reyes Jr., drums), Randall Bramblett will be joining your band on this tour. Will he be playing horn and guitar”?

SW: “No, actually he doesn’t play guitar. He plays horn and keyboards with me and sings a bit. I know that when he does his own stuff he plays guitar.”

MX: “He’s quite a player.”

SW: “He is fantastic. He is really fantastic. He’s a definite integral part of the band. And then we have a percussionist, Cafe Da Silva, who is originally from Brazil.”

MX: “That really hearkens to some of the Latin beat rhythms that are on the record as well.”

SW: “Yes, I’ve always been interested in those Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Even in the early days, in the later days of Spencer Davis, we used a lot of percussion. And we had an African drummer in Traffic, in quite a few of the many chapters of Traffic. I’ve always loved using those kinds of rhythms and combining them with various other forms of music; you know, like folk, jazz, rock, and even more different ethnic forms, perhaps like Irish-Celtic forms as well. And try to combine all those elements, which I think I’m probably still doing now with this record, trying to combine various, different elements. Of course, the idea of the Hammond organ, to combine that with world music and ethnic rhythms is, of course, not something that naturally fits because you don’t generally find Hammond organs on African, Brazilian or Cuban music. For whatever reason that is, it’s probably a bit (like) Hammond organs don’t survive very well in Africa or Brazil, or wherever it is. So I just had this idea to combine that. And in fact, this is the first record I’ve ever made where I haven’t played guitar.”

MX: “The record sounds great. On what is perhaps a bit of a side note, I wanted to ask you about the first Bonnaroo music festival (held in June, 2002 in Manchester, Tenn.). I know that you have now teamed with String Cheese Incident’s record company for this new record. That day in Tennessee (about a year before the release of About Time) you sat in with both String Cheese and Widespread Panic. Particularly with the Widespread Panic performance (the main show of the second day’s festivities, in front of a sold-out jam-band-crazy crowd of roughly 70,000), you played the Traffic tunes “Glad” and “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” with Panic: a moment that was a major highlight, if not the climax of the whole weekend for a lot of people, myself included. Was that experience a bit of a wake-up call for you about how there are all these folks out there who are all about that Traffic sound? What was it like being there?”

SW: “It was certainly a bit of a hearkening back to the old days when we used to play with Traffic. It certainly did. You know, in those days, the ‘jam band’ wasn’t invented. So we were just a rock band. Perhaps we were a jam band then without actually knowing it, I don’t know. It was a fantastic event, I mean a really incredible thing. And it’s such a great thing to know that so many young people like and enjoy organic, improvisational music. I think it’s probably a bit of a reaction against the corporate-driven, homogenous state of pop music, perhaps. Because I think that most of these things are cyclical, and I think things kind of come round, and if something goes a bit too far one way, then there will always be a reaction to it. And I think that this particular reaction, with hordes of young people listening to improvisational, live music, is a great thing.”

MX: “With the Widespread Panic performance, were you aware of Mr. Houser’s condition at the time? [Guitarist and founding member Michael Houser was suffering from cancer at the time. Although the news was not yet official at Bonnaroo, many fans were aware that Houser was sick. He left the band’s tour a few shows later to be at home with his family. Michael Houser passed away, less than two months later, on August 10, 2002.]”

SW: “Yeah, I knew that Michael was not well. And of course Randall Bramblett was playing with them at that time. And I’d met [Widespread Panic] beforehand. And I think that it was a great thing that he, and the band, carried on playing really. So, yeah it was fantastic.”

MX: “You’re obviously touring a good bit more nowadays. There was a mention of a possible Traffic reunion tour in the fall as well, plus these dates. What’s it like to be back on the road, and in that groove?”

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