Category Archives: Steve Winwood

Steve Winwood Discography

The history of Steve Winwood reads like the history of English rock and roll: teenage years spent in an R&B band in the 60s (the Spencer Davis Group), fronting a psychedelic rock band in the late 60s and a progressive rock band in the early 70s (Traffic both times), playing alongside titans (Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix) and finally fixed in the firmament as an established star with platinum-selling pop albums in the 1980s.

Winwood was seventeen when he had his first #1 single with the Spencer Davis Group, “Keep On Running” and just eighteen when he belted out the immortal R&B classic “Gimme Some Lovin’.” The next year, he moved to Chris Blackwell’s fledgling Island label and formed the psychedelic rock group Traffic with Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason and Chris Wood. After two groundbreaking albums, Winwood joined Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Rick Grech in the one-off supergroup Blind Faith before eventually reconvening Traffic with Capaldi and Wood. Traffic in its second phase featured extended and complex songs, notably on the classic albums John Barleycorn Must Die! (1970) and The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (1971), which endeared them to progressive rock fans like the guy who is writing this introduction right now.

Traffic came to a stop in the mid 70s, and Winwood released his first solo album in 1977, which picked up largely where Traffic left off. Not so the platinum-selling Arc of a Diver (1980), which introduced a streamlined R&B/pop sound and earned him his first hit single as a solo artist, “While You See A Chance.” “Valerie” from his next album repeated the feat, but it was Back In The High Life (1986) that became his biggest seller, taking the radio hostage with hits like “Higher Love,” “The Finer Things,” “Back In The High Life Again” and “Freedom Overspill.” Roll With It (1988) continued his commercially winning ways, but interest in his music quickly cooled; Refugees of the Heart (1990) merely went gold, Junction Seven (1997) didn’t even get that far. In the 21st century, the man who bought his first Hammond B-3 organ with the money from his first hit single returned to the instrument on About Time (2003) and Nine Lives (2008), to the delight of cantankerous graybeards like the guy who is finishing up this introduction right now.

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Blind Faith (1969)

Kronomyth 1.0: TREAM TEAM. For years, I saw this album as something of a disappointment. It sounded like Led Zeppelin with a timid folk singer. In truth, Blind Faith sounds a lot like Cream and Traffic, with one caveat: if these songs had been recorded by Cream or Traffic (in its Barleycorn incarnation), they would have sounded better. I like this album but have always felt it was an overrated asterisk. The opening “Had To Cry Today” lays it on the line; Winwood wrote it, but Jack Bruce should be singing it. Conversely, “Can’t Find My Way Home” would have worked better on Barleycorn with Chris Wood (though Baker does an admirable job of playing the drums on a song that doesn’t require them). The main pleasure I get from this record is hearing Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood play on music that matters. “Presence of the Lord,” “Sea of Joy,” “Had To Cry Today” and “Can’t Find My Way Home” belong with the best songs of Winwood and Clapton. Of course, Clapton fans will find as much (or more) to get excited about in Derek & The Dominoes. Blind Faith has been reissued about a billion times, usually with the controversial model cover, honored with a Mobile Fidelity remaster, expanded with a couple of post-session recordings (“Exchange and Mart,” “Spending All My Days”) and given a double-disc Deluxe Edition treatment that includes an electric version of “Can’t Find My Way Home,” two versions of Sam Myers’ “Sleeping In The Ground” and a bunch of instrumental jams (most of them recorded before Grech joined) that aren’t likely to increase your faith one iota. Given the dearth of classic Cream and Traffic recordings, you can’t turn a blind eye to Blind Faith, but I’d leave the Deluxe Edition to the deluded and settle on one of the single-disc remasters.

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Lou Reed: Berlin (1973)

Kronomyth 3.0: LOVE IT TO DEATH. If Lou Reed’s earlier songs were a slap in the face, Berlin was a punch in the stomach. Produced and arranged by the conceptual/ theatrical Bob Ezrin, Reed’s third album is a concept album that chronicles an abusive relationship between Jim and Caroline that ends, um, badly. There are no heroes here, no winners, only losers. Reed had given us many glimpses into troubled lives over the years, but Berlin is one long, unblinking stare at a tragedy that unfolds before our eyes and ears. Transformer smoothed out Reed’s rough edges. Berlin elevates them into spires on a great black cathedral for lost souls, resulting in his darkest work to date. The genius of Berlin is that it’s compiled largely from leftover pieces. “Berlin” had appeared in a brighter version on Lou Reed’s first album. “Oh, Jim,” “Caroline Says II” and “Men of Good Fortune” have their origins in the Velvet Underground. And yet Berlin moves seamlessly from honeymoon to hell and back again, as if it were stitched to a pattern. Ezrin has since stated his attraction to “heavy” themes, and the second side of Berlin is unbearably heavy. But Berlin is also one of Reed’s most musical albums, featuring strings, choirs and complex arrangements. The idea of staging Reed’s bleak narratives would seem crazy at first glance; crazy like a wolf and foxy, it turns out. Over the years, Reed’s tale of doomed lovers has grown in stature as new generations scale its formidable wall of pain. In 2006, Reed performed the album in its entirety for a handful of shows in New York, which became the basis for a film directed by Julian Schnabel. A nice bit of recycling, that; Andy would have been proud.

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Stomu Yamashta/Steve Winwood/Michael Shrieve: Go (1976)

Not a commercial album, though Trafficking in the dark side of the moon might seem that way. And I’m gung ho for Go’s gang: Winwood, Shrieve, Schulze, DiMeola. Stomu Yamashta is a mystery to me, but I admire his vision, sandwiching songs between instrumental interludes that range from modern classical to electronic space music. Whether it’s an album you’ll go to often depends on how much you like tripped-out concepts. If you bought into the artier excursions of Santana (e.g., Caravanserai), then you should consider adding Go to your itinerary of quasi-mystical journeys. There are also some parallels here to the work of Alan Parsons Project (natch) and Camel (specifically The Snow Goose). Winwood fans might feel out of place here, however. For them, there may be too many loose ends to unravel and too few songs like “Crossing The Line” and “Winner/Loser” to cling to. Some of the looseness stems from an unwieldy outfit; if you can find common ground between Al DiMeola and Klaus Schulze, give yourself a gold star. To my mind, I see this as an example of felicitous freelancing on the part of Winwood, as he’s clearly the biggest commercial draw in this collaborative venture. Compared to Blind Faith (diluted Cream) or latter-day Traffic (a dinosaur writhing in tar), this is an elevated outlet for Winwood. Of course, Stomu Yamashta deserves the lion’s share of the credit; it’s his baby, with Steve and Shrieve serving as godparents. Since the original elpee lacks liner notes, putting it all together is out of my grasp. Some critics have apparently uncovered deep truths in the music, but not me. It’s four thirty in the morning, Go has been going since two, and the amount of mystery swirling in the house is no more or less than you’d distill during Santana’s instrumental invocations. Still, if your tastes lean toward proggy, heady concepts, you’ll come to appreciate Go before long.

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Steve Winwood (1977)

Kronomyth 1.0: NO HITS, NO NAME, NO WONDER. Often lost and forgotten, Steve Winwood’s first official album was the second ill omen of nineteen hundred and seventy-seven, Peter Gabriel’s hodgepodge of pop and pomp being the other. Rolling Stone’s critics gave Winwood a pass on this one, but you’d have to be pretty mathematically challenged to think six songs and no hits after three years could add up to anything but disappointment. Whatever failings it had, at least Gabriel’s album gave an account of his long exodus from Genesis with “Solsbury Hill.” Anyone looking at Steve Winwood’s album, on the other hand, couldn’t help but notice that most of his old Traffic chums had come along for the ride: Chris Blackwell, Jim Capaldi, Reebop, Viv Stanshall. If it looked like the last Traffic album on paper, it sounded better on plastic. Island hired the rhythm section of Andy Newmark and Willie Weeks to flesh out Winwood’s keyboards and guitar, and the results were slightly more energized and, on songs like “Midland Maniac” and “Vacant Chair,” momentarily tantalizing. Unfortunately, Winwood’s self-editing skills hadn’t improved with time; even the better songs felt two minutes too long. That Steve Winwood could make an album like this was no surprise. That it would take him three years to make it was, in fact, pretty surprising. No doubt the album was recorded and released to keep Steve Winwood from disappearing into the “Whatever Happened To…?” files, yet the album leaves the question of his future as a solo artist unanswered. John Barleycorn was dead; that was clear enough. But would Steve Winwood’s star rise again? Only time would tell. Three years, to be exact, when he released the platinum-selling Arc of a Diver.

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George Harrison (1979)

Kronomyth 9.0: SOFT-HEARTED MANA. Rolling Stone gave this album one star. AMG two. Billboard three. All of which explains why I don’t rate albums on here. What’s the difference between two stars and two-and-a-half stars anyway, and is it worth the time it takes to think about it? Better to say that George Harrison’s self-titled elpee is a fitting followup to Thirty-Three & 1/3. The same pop sensibilities are there, wrapped in soft and spiritual arrangements, rendered with humility and humor. Coproduced by Russ Titelman (fresh from sessions with Randy Newman), the album lacks the sharp horn attack that Tom Scott brought to George’s last record, which means that these songs may take a little longer for their intrinsic melody to be revealed. Once that’s done, George’s fans should agree that “Blow Away,” “Dark Sweet Lady” and “Soft Touch” were worth the wait. However, in the defense of its critics, there are indications here that Harrison’s engine was losing steam. Despite having two years to write new material, the ex-Beatle trumps out a wannabe from Let It Be, “Not Guilty,” a pale imitation of an old classic on “Here Comes The Moon,” and indications in track placement and subject matter that suggest a formulaic reprise of his last album. These suspicions would be confirmed on Somewhere in England, but it seems unfair to blame this record for future failings. I’d rank this right alongside Thirty-Three & 1/3 and Cloud Nine as bright spots from his Dark Horse days. If you like George Harrison the artist, you’ll like George Harrison the album.

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Steve Winwood: Arc of a Diver (1980)

Kronomyth 2.0: WORK OF A DIY’ER. 1980 was a watershed in modern rock as artists anticipated the dark, science fiction future forecast by George Orwell. Peter Gabriel’s III, Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, David Bowie’s Scary Monsters and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light were examples of albums that sought to usher in that future with one big push. And then there was Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver: an album of soulful synthesizer pop that seemed to be blissfully ignorant of Orwell and his impersonal future. If the album contained nothing but fluff after the first two tracks, “While You See A Chance” and “Arc of a Diver,” it would still be a good album. Unfortunately, it does pretty much contain nothing but fluff after those tracks, so it’s only a good album and not a great one. Some effort was made to salvage “Spanish Dancer” and “Night Train” from the wreckage, but if you’re expecting any hidden treasures there I wouldn’t your breath. Yet here’s the thing: all of those edgy 1980 albums were red herrings for a revolution that never arrived. Instead, the future sounded a lot more like Arc of a Diver as singer/songwriters discovered that they could go into a studio with an army of electronic keyboards and come out with a decent-sounding record. It’s not a work of art, but as DIY (Do It Yourself) albums go, Arc of a Diver is a high watermark. It marks the beginning of a new chapter for Steve Winwood, the Multimoogul and Prophet-tearing pop star, who made synthesizers his instrument of choice and found a way to make the soulless box of circuits and switches sing for joy. Now if there was only a machine that could help him write more and better songs…

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Jim Capaldi: Let The Thunder Cry (1981)

Kronomyth 7.0: DISCO IS DEAD, LONG LIVE ROCK. Finally, a fitting followup to Short Cut Draw Blood. Let The Thunder Cry is a similarly pleasant potpourri of pop/rock with a good dose of social conscience and a little romance thrown in good measure. The first side of music is especially strong; so much so that, when a rocking cover of “Louie Louie” rolls around, Capaldi has earned the good will to pull it off. Highlights include the title track (a sympathetic rocker about Native Americans), the lithe “Favela Music,” “Child In The Storm” and the slightly edgy “We Don’t Need.” The melodies are familiar; you get the sense that you’ve heard “Only Love,” “Dreams Do Come True” and “Anxiety” somewhere before, but you’re happy to make their acquaintance again. In the case of “Old Photographs,” it seems that Capaldi has updated the classic “No Face, No Name, No Number,” and the two songs reveal that not so much has changed in the last twenty years. Capaldi’s range on this record is pretty impressive. He can rock, stir things up or play it smooth. The disco years may not have produced many timeless hits, but they do seem to have given him more confidence as a singer. The performances on “Warm” and “Only Love,” for example, are those of a first-tier balladeer. As with the aforementioned Short Cut, there really isn’t a bad song on here. It’s a solid, intelligent record that isn’t too commercial or antisocial. Once again, Capaldi carves out a niche for himself as an intelligent middle-of-the-road rocker who isn’t afraid to throw in a few love songs in between trying to save the world. [When this album was released on compact disc, it featured two additional songs: an acoustic version of “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and the nastier “Bathroom Jane.”]

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Steve Winwood: Talking Back To The Night (1982)

Kronomyth 3.0: DIVER DOWN. Steve Winwood writes soulful, romantic synthesizer pop. I write progressive rock reviews. Not exactly a match made in heaven, so when I tell you that this is a second Arc, bear in mind that I wasn’t exactly on board with the first one. Talking Back To The Night does contain the perennial hit “Valerie” and a couple of near-misses (“Talking Back To The Night,” “Help Me Angel”), but writing a few good songs every couple of years just isn’t going to cut it with me. This is, after all, Steve Winwood we’re talking about. The man is a rock legend, and rock legends don’t get to write songs like “Still In The Game” or “While There’s A Candle Burning” without somebody like me carping. Talking Back To The Night is too little, too light and too much like his last album. Also, somebody needs to punch Will Jennings in the kidney. She was like jazz on a summer’s day? Seriously, how many maxipads do you have to buy for your girlfriend before you come up with that line? Of course, writing songs at the feverish pace of four of five a year, a few clunkers were bound to slip in. With nine new songs, I’m surprised they didn’t make this a double album. Honestly, I think Winwood got lucky with Arc; that was basically a boring synth pop album with two great songs on it. Talking Back To The Night only has the one great song, so it’s twice as boring as Arc. Even Winwood seemed bored by it all, slipping back into semi-retirement for four years before giving the world something to really talk about with his next album.

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Jim Capaldi: Fierce Heart (1983)

Kronomyth 8.0: ARC OF A DIVERSE ARTIST. Co-produced with Steve Winwood, Fierce Heart is a conscious attempt to channel Winwood’s success with synthesizers into Jim Capaldi’s career. The result is surprisingly effective; in fact, this might be the best solo album he’s ever recorded. Capaldi doesn’t rely completely on synthesizers, but blends them into the approach taken on his last record, Let The Thunder Cry. The songs are once again reassuringly familiar; “That’s Love,” “I’ll Always Be Your Fool,” Living On The Edge” and “Runaway” use established rock motifs. Capaldi’s not trying to rewrite the book of rock, simply add his two cents to the conversation. The songs this time favor love over social change; the funky “Don’t Let Them Control You” (a rewrite of a Brazilian song, “Olhos Coloridos”) is the lone agitator in an otherwise smooth collection. The album—his first for new label Atlantic—was his highest charting since his debut, Oh How We Danced, and produced two hits in “That’s Love” and “Living On The Edge.” Although the year started off well enough for Capaldi and Winwood, it would end with the deaths of Chris Wood and Reebop Kwaku Baah (both of whom were also born in the same year, 1944). Still, Fierce Heart remains something of a high point in Jim Capaldi’s career and a sort of late-season fruition of his partnership with Winwood. It’s not as heavy as some of his other pop/rock albums, but it may be the best argument for his strengths as a singer/songwriter. If Winwood is your cup of tea, Fierce Heart is your capaldi. And that’s no bull. (You see, the cover has a picture of a bull on it and… eh, nevermind.)

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