Of Course It Sounds Like Traffic!

Originally posted February 6, 2007

At the time it was released, Steve Winwood’s self-titled first solo album didn’t impress people too much.

At least, that’s the sense I’ve gotten in the past few days as I’ve read reviews of it online and in my reference books. It sounded too much like Traffic, Winwood’s long-time band, folks complained.

Well, what did they expect? Winwood was the prime driving force in Traffic, especially after Dave Mason left, taking his more pop sensibilities with him. The group’s focus on longer, wider-ranging and exploratory pieces seemed at one with Winwood’s desire to explore the larger possibilities of rock. The face that those explorations sometimes seemed self-indulgent or other times ran right off the group’s maps into “Here Be Emtpiness” territory never scared the group or its followers. Nor were those indulgences and blind wanderings failures. Traffic was, after all, an experimental band. (It should be noted that Winwood et al. were perhaps not as experimental as other, more avant-garde musicians of the time, but still, the group, at least until Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory in 1973, kept pushing its limits, exploring new territory and maintaining both a wide following and high quality in composition and performance.)

So when the time came for Winwood to put together his long-awaited solo debut, why wouldn’t it sound like Traffic? Two of the reasons it did, of course, were Jim Capaldi and Reebop Kwaku Baah, with Capaldi providing percussion and backing vocals on “Time Is Running Out,” and Reebop providing congas on that cut and on “Luck’s In.” But two cuts don’t make the album; it’s a simple conclusion that Winwood sounded like Traffic because Traffic sounded like Winwood!

As I noted above, critics at the time were not impressed. Nor has everyone been persuaded otherwise in the thirty years since. (For an example of that, read the review of the album at All-Music Guide.  www.allmusic.com.) But, from the vantage point of those thirty years, a couple of things – beyond the fact that of course, a Winwood album in 1977 will sound like Traffic! – remain to be said.

First, the bulk of the record – heard, again, from a thirty-year distance – is capable, likable and probably hummable, given several listenings. When I ripped the record to mp3s this week, I realized I hadn’t listened to it for something like 15 years. I bought my copy at one of my favorite used music stores in Columbia, Missouri, in 1991 and remember listening to it frequently for about a year. Then it went into the stacks, and I don’t recall the last time I heard it, which allowed me to listen to it with fresh ears. And I liked it a lot better this week than I had in 1991, it seems.

Second, the record carries in its sound clear hints of the direction Winwood was going to take his music in the very near future. His working with Viv Stanshall – formerly leader of the Bonzo Dog Band – on the composition of “Vacant Chair” foreshadows the work the two of them would do together just four years later on Winwood’s triumphant Arc of a Diver. Along with that song-writing partnership, the synthesizer wash that flows of several of the compositions on “Steve Winwood” foreshadows even more strongly the sound that Winwood would unveil on Arc of a Diver and continue to use on his recordings for the next ten years at least.

All of that is most clearly seen in hindsight. Those who dismissed the album as pleasant but not significant in 1977 were looking for something more monumental, I guess, from Winwood. And they could not know that the sound they were hearing was the sound of Winwood beginning to find his solo voice, a solo voice that would provide both quality records and hits into the 1990s.

As for me, had I been one of those reviewers in 1977, I would have needed only one hearing of the record’s closer, “Let Me Make Something In Your Life,” to recognize it as more than just a good record. That one song by itself moves the record past the level of good to near-great.

Track listing:
Hold On
Time Is Running Out
Midland Maniac
Vacant Chair
Luck’s In
Let Me Make Something In Your Life

Steve Winwood [1977]


One Response to “Of Course It Sounds Like Traffic!”

  1. Listen To The Train Wreck « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] Winwood by Steve Winwood, 1977 Original post here. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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