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Steve Winwood Returns with 'About Time'

Cover for the Steve Winwood CD <i>About Time</i> (Wincraft Music, 2003)
Cover for the Steve Winwood CD About Time (Wincraft Music, 2003)

Steve Winwood is one of rock 'n' roll music's most respected artists. He's mastered many instruments -- especially the distinctive vibe of the organ -- and his voice is considered one of the best examples of "white soul."

"His calling card was the wail of a Hammond organ," says NPR's Liane Hansen. "His voice also left a lasting impression -- a voice that sounded more like Ray Charles than an 18-year-old white kid from Birmingham, England."

He burst on the scene in 1963, just 15 years old, as a member of The Spencer Davis Group. Now, 40 years later, he's returned with a new CD that's being widely hailed by critics -- About Time. Hansen recently spoke with Winwood about his long legacy of hits and the hits still to come.

After The Spencer Davis Group, Winwood's career took off with the legendary band Traffic. He later joined forces with Rick Grech, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton to form what's been called rock's first "supergroup," Blind Faith. Since then, Winwood has been a solo act, and his career reached a high point in 1986 with the single "Higher Love."

Steve Winwood's organ playing stayed in the background for most of his solo work, but he's brought his Hammond B3 front-and-center for his new CD. About Time was recorded live in the studio with Brazilian guitarist Jose Neto and drummer Walfredo Reyes.

There's no bass player -- Winwood supplies the low-end pulse with the organ's foot pedals. The result is a fresh, spontaneous sound that The San Francisco Chronicle called "a major triumph for one of rock's less celebrated elder statesmen."

"I wanted to go as far as possible back to traditional recording techniques," Winwood told Hansen. The sound of About Time indeed harkens back to Winwood's best work.

After Traffic and Blind Faith split up, Winwood put out his first solo album in 1977. It was received respectfully, if not enthusiastically. Winwood wasn't very happy with it either. So, as he would do many times in his career, he all but disappeared from the music scene for several years, living the life of a country gentleman at his rural English farm. In 1980 he re-emerged with Arc of a Diver, an album of polished, well-crafted pop/rock that set the tone for the next phase of Winwood's solo career. Winwood played every note on the album.

Soon after, the 1986 album Back in the High Life -- propelled by the hit single "Higher Love," earned Winwood two Grammys -- best male vocal and Record of the Year. There were a number of albums after that, the most recent in 1997. After mediocre reviews, Winwood retreated once again, re-thought his career direction and made some changes.

The result is his new CD, which in many ways harkens back to the more improvisatory style of his early days. The Los Angeles Times agreed, saying "Steve Winwood hasn't so much returned to the Traffic approach as he has refreshed it, and his sense of musical liberation is as enticing as are his Hammond skills and, of course, that still-soaring voice."

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