STEVE WINWOOD — About Time (review)

STEVE WINWOOD — About Time album cover Album · 2003 · Jazz Related Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
3/5 ·
After serving as a beacon of musical sanity and hope during the MTV virus-infected 80s by delivering top-quality albums like “Back in the High Life” and “Roll With It,” Steve Winwood’s focus inexplicably blurred and the two studio CDs he put out in the decade that followed were weak and insignificant. He did co-create an above-average reunion album with former Traffic brother Jim Capaldi in ’94 but his solo career sank like a flooded submarine, making many of us fear that he had thrown in the towel and retired to raise sheep on his farm till the cows came home. Early in 2003, six long years since his last release, rumors began to surface that Steve was back in the studio with a new configuration of musicians and a revived enthusiasm for writing songs and making music. My wife and I have always been big fans of his so I bought the aptly-titled “About Time” disc when it came out that June and purchased tickets for us to see him and his combo perform in a relatively small venue in Dallas later that summer. I only wish the record was as satisfying as the concert was.

From what I gathered through sound bites and short interviews Winwood had gotten burned out by his phenomenal success and had become wholly disgusted with the process of manufacturing songs by layering instruments and vocals on top of sterile click tracks instead of being part of a cohesive band. “About Time” was an effort to return to the basic idea of making records with a unified, group-generated spirit of cooperation in play and to hell with the “I don’t hear a hit single” mentality. Steve book-ended himself with a core duo consisting of Jose Piresde Almeida Neto on guitar and Walfredo Reyes, Jr. on drums with sizeable contributions being provided by Karl Vanden Bossche and Richard Bailey on percussion and Karl Denson on sax and flute. In even better news, Winwood was purposely restricting himself to his famous Hammond B3 organ and playing all the bass lines on its pedals. While the nobility of his intent was very appealing to many of us it would still, as it always does, come down to how good the songs were and, in that crucial category the album is, unfortunately, somewhat unremarkable. But make no mistake, this CD is not a failure. Steve’s voice is as good as it’s ever been and that factor alone more than qualifies it for your consideration.

The impressive opener, “Different Light,” starts with rhythm guitar followed by drums, congas and Steve’s fat B3 that jump into the groove. The strong Latin vibe is irrepressible and very Traffic-like in its essence, especially when it’s supplemented by Denson’s subtle saxophone ride. Winwood explains his absence to an extent when he sings honest lines like “I had overlooked a part of me/I was escaping my reality/I have questioned my philosophy/so that I could see the truth in me” and then goes on to prove that he still possesses a special gift for making his Hammond organ wail. “Cigano (For the Gypsies)” is next. Its funky R&B feel is engaging and the arrangement has an attractive flow to it. Steve’s organ solo is coolly coy but during his guitar lead Jose reveals the limitations in his technique that would curb the album’s ability to soar when it needed to. “Take It To The Final Hour” is one of the disc’s highlights. Winwood’s ode to his late father sports a sneaky Caribbean beat that’s kept under firm control by Walfredo’s deft drumming and they wisely leave lots of open spaces to be filled by Steve’s intricate vocal inflections. The gritty tone he conjures from his trusty B3 in the latter going provides an excellent contrast to the smooth sailing of the quieter verses. On “Why Can’t We Live Together” a sultry Bossa Nova approach emphasizes the tight relationship between Reyes’ drums, Bossche’s congas and Bailey’s timbales. Overall, the tune is a nostalgic throwback that captures Marvin Gaye’s aura quite well and Neto shows that he’s much more adept when required to play in a more classical guitar style but Winwood’s organ ride is disappointingly tame.

“Domingo Morning” is a perky Spanish-sounding tune presented without drums (congas only). It’s pleasant enough but it falls far short of being memorable. The driving momentum fueling the motivational, anti-drug message of “Now That You’re Alive” is reminiscent of Steve’s outstanding work in the 80s that made him an icon. Karl’s saxophone gives the tune a classy personality and Jose smartly avoids overreaching on his guitar lead. “Bully” is more Latin-tinted funk but Winwood’s inimitable singing elevates the number significantly and the tasteful jam they indulge in at the end is a minor treat. On “Phoenix Rising” a dangerous atmosphere of familiarity begins to seep into the proceedings in that it sounds much like what has transpired before. Thank heaven for the welcome addition of Denson’s spirited flute and some fiery outbursts from Richard’s timbales that rise above the mediocrity of the unimaginative arrangement. “Horizon” is a peaceful ballad buoyed only by guitar and organ. It’s very pretty but it doesn’t create a lasting impression. “Walking On” is a rocker with yet another Latin hue. Karl’s flute grants it a life of its own and the percussion tandem of Bossche and Bailey help to keep the track vibrant. Otherwise, it’s more of the same old same old. They close with “Silvia (Who Is She?),” an epic eleven and a half minute track composed by Steve and Jose. The mysterious intro lends some drama to the atmosphere and Walfredo’s ensuing heavy drum groove is refreshing but Neto’s extended guitar solo torpedoes the endeavor. He starts out okay but when he gets frantic it gets away from him in a hurry and his clumsy shredding becomes a distraction. The only bright spot happens when Reyes breaks off from the straight beat and cuts loose with some outstanding drumming in the final segment.

While many of you may find more to like in “About Time” than I do, I can only wish that it would’ve contained more in the way of delivering some variety. There are times when a simple piano would’ve provided a boost without tampering with the fundamental, bare-bones concept they were striving to present. I also would’ve loved to have heard more from Denson’s saxophone. He tore the roof off the theatre when we saw them on stage and I can attest that the boy’s got game. The rhythm section is outstanding throughout as is Winwood’s voice and organ-playing but I get the feeling they painted themselves into a corner at times and got tunnel vision. The jazz influence is kept to a minimum and that’s another underused angle that could’ve made the album less predictable and a lot more exciting. As it is, it’s a good record that runs out of gas a half mile from the border of greatness.
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