Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. This week and next, I’ll be examining the careers of two multi-talented singer/songwriters whose musical arcs briefly overlapped in the ’60s and then went in different directions through the ’70s and ’80s and beyond. This week in Part One, we’ll take a look at the amazing Steve Winwood. Next week in Part Two, we’ll explore the interesting path taken by the great Dave Mason.

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Summer 1969. Over the previous six months, I had become a huge fan of Cream, the British blues power trio featuring guitarist Eric Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce. The group had already disbanded, but that didn’t stop me from immersing myself in their albums. As a budding guitarist myself, I idolized Clapton and was eager to find out what he was going to do next.

By August, the record stores were touting a new album by a new “supergroup” called Blind Faith, comprised of Clapton and Baker with a keyboardist/singer named Steve Winwood, and bassist Ric Grech. I bought the LP immediately and, while I was at first disappointed by the absence of firepower Cream had been known for, I was particularly taken by the vocals of this guy Winwood. Haunting and beautiful, soaring and bluesy, his voice was a revelation to me, as was the fact that he’d been in not one but two successful groups previously, even though he was then only 21.

I am sheepish to admit that, at that time, I knew almost nothing of Traffic, the band Winwood had put together in 1967. It took another couple of years before I truly became familiar with the group through their albums in the early ’70s, and longer still to appreciate the fine work from the first three Traffic albums, or his contributions to the Spencer Davis Group before that, while still just a teenager.

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Winwood, a product of Birmingham, England, had been something of a boy wonder, learning piano early and developing his voice as he absorbed many different types of music. “I was a chorister in the High Anglican Church,” he said in a 2017 interview with Classic Rock, a British music magazine. “That music got under my skin somehow. Then along came skiffle and early rock ‘n roll and Buddy Holly. And later on came Ray Charles, who had a big influence on me and introduced me to this crossover from bebop and jazz into rock and R&B. I was so engrossed with learning all these different types of music, and trying to play them all, and realizing that being on stage was just part of it. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything I should shy away from.”

Spencer Davis Group, with Winwood at far right

Nevertheless, both Winwood brothers joined up and became key cogs in the Spencer Davis Group. Clapton, in his 2007 autobiography, recalls hearing Winwood for the first time in 1963. “He was only 15,” he recalled. “If you closed your eyes, you’d swear it was Ray Charles up there. He was like a much older man in a boy’s skin.”

By 1965, the group was making a huge splash, first on the British charts with the #1 R&B-flavored singles “Keep On Running” and “Somebody Help Me,” and then in the US in 1966 with the Top Ten hits “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man,” both written by Winwood. His outstanding vocals and organ dominated the group’s sound, and gave him the confidence to think about branching out.

Interestingly, Cream was just forming at that time, and Clapton was keen on asking Winwood to join, but Baker and Bruce stood firm on wanting the trio format. “There was a lack of synchronization at the time,” said Winwood, “and I guess the offer to be a part of Cream never came through. I certainly would’ve taken the job.” The mind reels at the thought of how different Cream would’ve sounded with Winwood in the fold…

Traffic in 1967. Dave Mason and Winwood in front, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood in back

The music that came out of those sessions turned a lot of heads. First came Winwood’s infectious single, “Paper Sun,” followed soon after by Mason’s trippy “Hole in My Shoe.” Both songs reached the Top Five in the UK. The debut LP, “Mr. Fantasy,” which peaked at #16, was dominated by songs written by Winwood (music) and Capaldi (lyrics), including “Heaven Is In Your Mind,” “No Face, No Name, No Number” and the anthemic “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” There was an alluring stew of soulful blues, strange psychedelia and blues rock. (In the US, the time apparently wasn’t right yet for Traffic; the album stalled at #88 and the singles went nowhere.)

Mason, spooked by the early immediate success in England, chose to leave, although he would return in time for sessions for the next LP, titled simply “Traffic.” The Capaldi/Winwood axis came up with great tracks like “Pearly Queen” and “40,000 Headmen,” and Mason brought well-crafted songs like “You Can All Join In” and perhaps his most famous tune, “Feelin’ Alright?” which ended up being covered by dozens of artists over the years, most notably Joe Cocker, whose definitive rendition reached the Top 40 in the US.

But Mason then split again — as his lyric states, “Seems I’ve got to have a change in scene…” — so Traffic soldiered on as a trio, expanding their touring to include their first visit to the US. Live recordings from those shows were used to augment several stray studio tracks like “Medicated Goo” and “Shanghai Noodle Factory” to produce a third Traffic LP, “Last Exit,” which sounded decidedly inferior to the first two.

At that point, Winwood concluded he needed a change as well and pulled the plug on Traffic — for now. He accepted Clapton’s overture to at last pool their talents to see what might come of it. They squirreled away in the same rural Berkshire cottage, jamming and trying out new song ideas. Baker heard about this and showed up too, and Winwood called his friend Ric Grech to join them on bass and violin, and Blind Faith was born.

Winwood, Ric Grech, Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton

The media hype surrounding the band doomed them from the get-go. “Blind Faith was pretty murky, really,” Winwood remembers. “That didn’t really work out quite as well as Eric and I had intended. I don’t think there was any one reason for that, but Eric didn’t want to carry on doing what he’d been doing with Cream. We were both looking for something else. The music that we started off doing was acoustic and jangly. It had a sort of folk element to it, which is not something that goes down too well in the arena rock environment. We had pressures from the business to start recording before we were ready, and we were suddenly playing big places. Neither of us were into that. We were starting to lose interest at different points and were drifting apart.”

The album reached #1 in the US and the UK, but after the tour, the group parted ways. But as we will see, the world hadn’t heard the last of the Winwood/Clapton collaboration.

Winwood thought the time was ripe for his first solo LP, and he began writing and recording songs for it. As sessions continued, though, he found himself missing input from Wood and Capaldi, particularly Wood’s flute and sax, so he invited them to participate. It became obvious that this was now going to become another Traffic album, and so it was: “John Barleycorn Must Die,” released in the summer of 1970, would become the highest charting Traffic LP in the US, peaking at #5. FM rock stations played it relentlessly, especially the jazzy instrumental “Glad,” the sax-driven rocker “Freedom Rider” and the more accessible “Empty Pages.”

Incredibly, Mason returned yet again (briefly) as part of a US tour, recordings from which comprised the so-so live album “Welcome to the Canteen.” Traffic’s lineup expanded at that point to include Grech on bass,

 

Traffic in 1971, from left: Wood, Grech, Gordon, Baah, Capaldi, Winwood

second drummer Jim Gordon (formerly with Derek and the Dominos) and Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah, which accentuated their tendency toward unusual rhythms and longer jams.

Late in 1971 came what many people (including me) feel is Traffic’s finest moment, the captivating “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” LP. The mesmerizing, 12-minute title track is still a classic rock favorite, and “Many a Mile to Freedom” and “Hidden Treasure” show the group still in command of their original semi-trippy sound. Two other tracks — “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” and “Rock and Roll Stew” — offered Traffic doing straightforward rock, with Capaldi handling lead vocals.

Winwood had been suffering occasional bouts of peritonitis (inflammation of the abdomen), which affected his stage performances and his interest in music in general, so after two rather uneven albums (1973’s “Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory” and 1974’s “When the Eagle Flies”) and another live LP, Traffic called it quits.

“In the mid-to-late Seventies,” he said, “I dropped out a little from the rock’n’roll world. I made a conscious effort to do a lot of sessions and work as a sideman, to try to learn how other people were putting music together. Then later on, of course, punk emerged. I found that tricky, because punk rock was almost a reaction against what I’d been doing. It was difficult for me to grasp that, so I suppose I sort of went underground a little.”

Winwood finally released his first solo album in late 1977, with help from a variety of session men, and reaction was decidedly mixed. It had its moments, like the mid-tempo “Vacant Chair” and “Time is Running Out” with its galloping rhythm, but it wasn’t the killer album everyone had been anticipating.

Instead, that album came in late 1981, when “Arc of a Diver” kickstarted his solo career big time. He teamed up with Texan songwriter Will Jennings to provide lyrics for a batch of great songs like “Second Hand Woman,” “Night Train” and the melodic title song. It was truly a one-man tour de force, with Winwood playing all the instruments himself. The leadoff track, “While You See a Chance,” peaked at #7 in the US, beginning his decade-long commercial success here, and the album reached #3. A retrospective review on AllMusic gushed, “Utterly unencumbered by the baggage of his long years in the music business, Winwood reinvented himself as a completely contemporary artist on this outstanding album.”

I never quite understood why the 1982 follow-up LP, “Talking Back to the Night,” didn’t equal its predecessor’s success, at least in the US, where it stalled at #28. Songs like “Big Girls Walk Away,” “Help Me Angel” and the amazing title song deserved more attention, as did “Valerie,” which did finally reach #9 five years after initial release when it was remixed and included on Winwood’s “Chronicles” collection.

A period of soul-searching and a divorce resulted in a move to New York, where he teamed up with some marquis players like Nile Rodgers, Joe Walsh, Chaka Khan and James Taylor and veteran producer Russ Titelman to make the outstanding, award-winning “Back in the High Life” album. Three hit singles — “The Finer Things,” “Back in the High Life Again” and the Grammy winner “Higher Love” — helped put the album at #3 in 1986. I loved this album for its crisp production and satisfying songs.

He concluded his commercial period in 1988 with his only #1 album, “Roll With It,” and another trio of Top Ten singles: “Roll With It” (strongly reminiscent of Junior Walker’s ’60s hit “Shotgun”), “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do” and “Holding On.”

By this point, I was starting to tire of him because of overexposure, and apparently I wasn’t alone, for his sales and popularity (and, consequently, his recorded output) dropped off dramatically in the ’90s and beyond. I continued to buy his stuff — 1990’s “Refugees of the Heart,” 1997’s “Junction Seven” and 2003’s “About Time” — but rarely played them.

It was big news in some circles when Winwood announced a Traffic reunion in 1994, although it didn’t include Mason nor Grech or Baah, and Wood had passed away in 1983. So it was pretty much just Winwood and Capaldi who collaborated on the excellent “Far From Home” album, which reached the Top 30 in both the US and the UK. Some said it sounded like another Winwood solo album, and while it’s true that the majority of tracks wouldn’t have been out of place on “Roll With It,” at least two — “Here Comes a Man” and the superb “Far From Home” — recall the “Low Spark” era of Traffic.

Winwood asked Clapton in 2008 to play a solo on the track “Dirty City” from his final solo LP to date, “Nine Lives,” and it’s a beauty. Other songs also received airplay, like the beautiful “Fly” and “Secrets,” which helped send the album to #12 (although that kind of rating doesn’t have the same clout or meaning in the age of downstreaming).

That small project brought the two veterans together in a much larger way in 2009 for “Live From Madison Square Garden,” where Clapton and Winwood offered a dizzying set list of songs from Cream, Traffic, Blind Faith and both of their solo albums. That live album was so well received that the duo went on world tour for a year.

Today, at age 72, Winwood still performs periodically and had planned a tour with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (wow!) this year that was cancelled like every other tour because of the coronavirus. As a 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee with Traffic, and ranked #33 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, Winwood’s stature in the business is secure.

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We should be grateful for The Dead

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists whom I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I delve into the work of one of rock music’s most legendary bands that emerged from San Francisco in the ’60s and seemed to tour almost non-stop for nearly thirty years, playing for arguably the most fanatical base any rock band has ever known:  The Grateful Dead.

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Twenty-five years ago this week, the great Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack at the age of 53.  It brought to an end not only the life of a magnificent guitarist, songwriter and images-286spiritual figurehead but also his band.  So crucial was Garcia to The Grateful Dead’s sound and vibe that the remaining members concurred they really couldn’t go on without him.

“Captain Trips,” they called him, an obvious reference to his experiences with LSD and other psychedelics, and also his position at the helm of his group, steering them along on their long, strange trip from ragged blues outfit to one of rock music’s most traveled, storied bands.

images-279Funny thing, though:  While I admire their musical chops and what they were able to achieve in their three decades in the business, I would say I’ve been no more than a modest fan of The Dead over the years.  I own the two marvelous LPs from 1970, “Workingman’s Dead” images-280and “American Beauty”; the awesome triple album, “Europe ’72”; and their surprising commercial comeback in 1987, “In the Dark.”  But if I were to list my favorite rock artists, I don’t think The Dead would make the Top 30.

Part of the reason, I think, is that I feel like I’m not really part of the one-of-a-kind bond the band shared with its core audience.  I feel like an outsider, even though I’m sympathetic to the sweet devotion, sharing and general kindness that were the hallmarks of the relationship between the band and its fans, who are lovingly referred to as Deadheads.  I feel as if I missed that era.

images-285I’ve always found it fascinating that Garcia, considered one of the most expressive electric guitarists in rock history, began his musical journey as a banjo player in a jug band in the early ’60s.  He loved bluegrass, “old-time” music and country, but he also enjoyed blues and rock ‘n’ roll, so in 1965, he liked the idea of forming an electric band with his friends Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, guitarist Bob Weir, drummer Bill Kreutzmann and bassist Phil Lesh.

In the “anything goes” San Francisco community of the mid-to-late 1960s, The Dead thrived on, and fed off of, the free-thinking mindset of the music lovers who attended their shows.  The band had been involved in the notorious Acid Tests sponsored by counterculture author Ken Kesey and his “merry pranksters,” where everyone was eager

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The Dead at a free concert in Haight-Ashbury

to experiment with mind-expanding psychedelic drugs, mostly LSD.  The Dead’s music provided an ideal background, and became a sort of soundtrack to the trips (good and bad) everyone was taking.

The band existed as a fun-spirited collective, always in partnership with the audience.  In the early days, they dedicated their time and talents, often for free, to their community, offering food, lodging, music, even health care to those who needed it.  It has been said that the band performed more free concerts than any band in the history of music.

Garcia was always saying trippy things like, “I think every human being should be a

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Garcia with Bob Weir

conscious tool of the universe.  That’s why I think it’s important to get high.  I’m not talking about getting zonked out, I mean being fully conscious.  I think of The Dead as being a crossroads or a pointer sign, and what we’re pointing to is that there’s a lot of universe available, a whole lot of experience available over here.  We’re a signpost to new space, and that’s the function we should be filling in society.  In our own little society, that’s what we do, even though in the popular world, we’re just a rock and roll band.”

It’s fairly amazing, therefore, that a staid, mainstream recording company like Warner Brothers would sign a band like the Grateful Dead to its label.  And sure enough, the Unknown-492band’s first three albums — “Grateful Dead,” “Anthem of the Sun” and the puzzling palindrome “Aoxomoxoa” — were about as uncommercial as you could get.  When Warners asked for a single they could promote on the radio, they responded with “Dark Star,” a valiant attempt at a sing-songy tune that degenerated into loose instrumental noodling that simply didn’t go over outside the Bay Area.

But here’s the thing:  That “loose instrumental noodling” was exactly what the band did in their live performances, and the fans ate it up.  Indeed, “Dark Star” in its original format lasted just 2:42, but on “Live/Dead,” the song and the jam that ensued from it went on for 23 minutes.  (You can hear both versions on the Spotify playlist below.). As Lesh once said, “Recording albums in the studio felt artificial.  The end result felt like making ads for the band.  We always just wanted to play live, to images-275experience that collective improvisation together with the audience.  That was the fundamental thing for us.”

And that’s why The Dead released more live albums than studio albums over the course of their career.  And that’s why they began a tradition of recording just about every show they ever did.  And that’s why fans who attended dozens, even hundreds of Dead performances took to making their own bootleg recordings, eventually spurred on by the band, who cheerfully permitted the practice.

It’s astounding to me that there have been nearly three hundred live albums officially released through the band’s own label or on Rhino Records.  Any but the most ardent fans would find this excessive, even overwhelming, but Deadheads get off on picking out subtle differences in the way the band performed a given song, the way Garcia might shape his solos, the interchange between the drummers, the impact of the vocal images-281harmonies, the exceptional bass playing that seemed to connect it all.

A huge traveling entourage (musicians, road crew, managers and their families!) and a spirit of largesse took its toll on the band’s finances, but somehow they made it work.  “We really weren’t interested in making money,” said Weir.  “We just wanted to play every night.”  A large portion of the money they earned was spent on building an insanely large “wall of sound” system to give their audience the best possible experience of hearing live music.

The band’s lineup changed over the years through death and attrition.  Drummer Mickey Hart was added to give the band a two-drummer approach that served their improvisational format very well.  Robert Hunter and John Barlow, both perceptive lyricists who worked with Garcia and Weir respectively, were considered “non-performing members” who brought a friendly sensibility to the band’s repertoire.  McKernan died of alcoholism in 1973 and

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The Dead with Bob Dylan, 1987

was replaced by Keith Godchaux, whose singing wife Donna became the band’s first and only female member.  They lasted until 1980 when Brent Mydland took over on keyboards, and by the late ’80s, they collaborated with the great Bob Dylan on a few tours.  The talented Bruce Hornsby was an unofficial member of the group for a couple of tours in the early ’90s.

While everyone in The Dead dabbled in drugs, Garcia was of the “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess” philosophy.  This took him toward the darker drugs like heroin, to which he became severely addicted in the ’80s and ’90s.  Eventually it affected his health

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1987 LP

and his energy level, which affected his performances, and the Dead family started gently pushing him toward rehab, which he accepted but only half-heartedly.  He suffered a diabetic coma that frightened him into clean living for a while, but in the end, the drugs had their way with him.

The band may have officially called it quits once he was gone, but the members have reunited periodically for one-off concerts, and various configurations — The Other Ones, Phil Lesh & Friends, Rhythm Devils, even Dead & Company — toured at various times through the 2000s and into the 2010s.  As Lesh put it, “Some music was meant to be heard live, and we were dying to play it.  So we did.”  And of course, the recording of live shows has continued to the present day.

Currently showing on Netflix is “Long Strange Trip,” a remarkable six-part documentary on the Grateful Dead that I highly recommend to anyone even remotely interested in knowing more about this band, its members, its history, its culture, its name.

And what about its name?  How did they come up with that?  It’s an amusing story, well known among fans, but not among the music-loving public at large.

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The Dead as The Warlocks

In 1966, Garcia and company were known as The Warlocks, but when they learned of another band also called The Warlocks (who, by the way, later changed to The Velvet Underground), they knew they needed a new name.  “We were over at Phil’s house one day, and he had this big Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary,” Garcia recalled.  “I opened it at random, and my eyes first fell on ‘Grateful Dead’, those two words juxtaposed.  It was one of those moments, you know, like everything else went blank, and there was GRATEFUL DEAD in big, black letters, such a stunning combination.  So I said, ‘How about Grateful Dead?’ And that was it.”

Not everyone embraced it at first, but once they learned its meaning, they were on board.  The phrase refers to folk tales in which “a dead person, or his angel, shows gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged for their proper burial.”  They found this act of kindness in keeping with their overacting spirit of community.

images-276Stumbling on that phrase in a book was just the sort of cosmic randomness that fascinated Garcia, and it came to dominate how the band would exist throughout its lifetime.  “Every night that we went out on stage, you never knew what might happen,” said Lesh.  “We rarely had a prepared set list.  We just played what felt right at that moment.  God, I just loved that about us.”

An article in a music magazine once stated, “The real medium of rock and roll is records.  Concerts are only repeats of records.”  Lesh noted, “The Dead represent the opposite of that idea.  Our records are definitely not it.  The concerts are it, but we’re not in such images-277total control of our scene that we can say, ‘Tonight’s the night, it’s going to be magic tonight.’  We can only say we’re going to try it again tonight.  Each night was like jumping off a cliff together.”

Dennis McNally, the band’s biographer and publicist, summed up The Dead’s magic this way:  “They are the most American of all bands because each musician that started that band came from a completely different space musically.  You had a bluegrass banjo player on lead guitar, a blues harmonica player on keyboards, a folky rhythm guitarist, an R&B drummer, an avant-garde classical composer picking up the bass, a marching band drummer, and a genius lyricist  — you mix all these streams, dissolve the egos with acid, and stir vigorously.  That’s Grateful Dead music.”

I, for one, am delighted to have their vast recorded repertoire available for my listening pleasure.  You might call me grateful for The Dead.

 

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Because of the huge number of live recordings in The Dead’s vault, I found it too much to absorb to determine which tracks belong on a setlist.  Since I am most familiar with the older “Live/Dead” (1969) and “Europe ’72,” the live cuts culled for this Spotify list are from those albums.  Otherwise, you’ll hear my favorite selections from their studio LPs.