April 28th, 2008
By Mike Snider
Steve Winwood has crafted a stellar solo career since his Spencer Davis Group/Traffic/Blind Faith heyday. But when he sees a chance for a high-profile collaboration, he takes it.
In February, he joined Eric Clapton for three sold-out nights at New York's Madison Square Garden. Next month, just as Winwood turns 60, he begins a new alliance and joins Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers on one of summer's top tours. He'll perform a one-hour set and join Petty on stage during the Heartbreakers' headlining set.
"I'll be changing up the repertoire on each show," Winwood says. Petty, who regularly works Spencer Davis Group tunes into his Buried Treasure show on XM Radio, "has very kindly invited me to do some stuff with him."
Winwood's already-long playlist expands with the release today of his ninth solo album, Nine Lives. It's his first since 2003's About Time, which he released on his own Wincraft Music label. Since then, he has toured extensively and played on others' albums, including Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics (2006).
Though Nine Lives isn't a stylistic return to Winwood's commercial outings of the 1990s, he has teamed with a major label (Columbia). He says the one-album deal gives him "a certain degree of independence" during a time of strife in the music industry. "I suppose if I was really sensible, I would now be going on an independent label," Winwood says.
Rather than recruiting prominent contributors such as Quincy Jones and James Taylor, who appeared on his best-selling album, 1986's triple-platinum Back in the High Life, Winwood chose to work with his well-knit touring band of recent years: Brazilian guitarist José Neto, lyricist on About Time, and drummer Richard Bailey, who as a teen played drums for Bob Marley, Johnny Nash and Jeff Beck.
"The material actually came out of what the band played during jams and sound checks," Winwood says. "It made it a lot more organic."
A new accomplice is ex-New Waver Peter Godwin, who wrote most of the lyrics with Neto assisting.
"When we had a basic form and musical sound, we'd talk about what it expresses to us, how the music speaks to us, and (Godwin) would come up with a couple ideas," Winwood says. "He'd say, 'If that's no good, try this one that's completely different.' "
Nine Lives' accessibility hinges on Winwood's clean delivery, while his Hammond B3 organ brings the ballast. Traffic-styled jams are spiced with Caribbean, Latin and South African rhythms. Hungry Man has a vibe akin to Paul Simon's international forays. Fly and At Times We Do Forget flow with a Dave Matthews Band-like lilt.
Clapton came to Winwood's studio in the rural English countryside to record the guitar god solo that drives Dirty City, the first single.
"It has a bit more of that rock thing," Winwood says. "My whole thing since the early days has been to combine all folk, rock, jazz, R&B and blues and to try to create something that is unique, or peculiar is probably a better word, and this (album) is no exception."
He and Clapton filmed the New York concerts for possible high-definition home video release and may have more collaborations in store this year. "We've both got a busy schedule in the summer. Since we're both getting on now, we've decided we need a bit of rest after that. So we'll take a breather and perhaps think of doing something after that."
Winwood, who is married and has four children, considers himself "semi-retired" these days, but that means "I just kind of carry on doing what I want to do."
"I'm actually quite lucky and fortunate that I've been able to do that so far."