Greatest Hits Live
is something of a misnomer as applied to Steve Winwood
's expansive in- concert collection. Not that the title doesn't contain his most well-known numbers, because it does, ranging all the way from his days as a teenage wunderkind ("Gimme Some Lovin'") to his most mainstream commercial success ("Roll With It"). But over the course of two compact discs-or alternately, four vinyl LP's-this iconic British musician and songwriter offers a penetrating exploration of his days with the legendary band Traffic as well as his solo career, not to mention his abbreviated collaboration with Eric Clapton
known as Blind Faith.
In doing so, Winwood re-imagines the selections, not just by some healthy improv (and tight ensemble work as on the haunting "Rainmaker"), but also by stylistic cross-pollination that indirectly references his lesser-known endeavors. Accordingly, the 1966 nugget he fronted for the Spencer Davis Group, "I'm A Man," turns into a jazz-inflected take on world music, courtesy saxophonist Paul Booth and percussionist Edson "Cafe" da Silver.
The wide reach of his own track selection allows the man and his band the means of hearkening indirectly to Ginger Baker
's Air Force and Stomu Yamashta's Go as well as offering evidence of his fondness for contemporary r&b: Timmy Thomas' "Why Can't We Live together?" was a 1972 hit Winwood covered on his eponymous solo debut five years later, while this pulsating version of Buddy Miles
' signature song "Them Changes." works as homage to the late drummer as well as indirect tribute to famous musicians with whom he worked: Jimi Hendrix
(in Band of Gypsies) and Mike Bloomfield
(in his groundbreaking big band Electric Flag).
Yet that latter choice is not much more of a surprising inclusion on Greatest Hits Live
than "Walking in the Wind," a cull from the penultimate Traffic studio album When the Eagles Flies
(Island, 1974) or the ever- so-catchy '68 single "Medicated Goo." Each is a gem in its own right for very different reasons: the shadowy likes of the former would pose a marked contrast from the ever-so-catchy whimsy of the latter even if they had not been juxtaposed in this twenty-three song sequence.
Containing "Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" and "Back in the High Life Again," the amalgamation of titles on this first compact disc alone might well have sufficed as a microcosm of Steve Winwood's career. But then he'd be giving short shrift to the likes of "While You See a Chance," his first solo hit from Arc of A Diver
(Island, 1980), the title song of which album resides right next to it. And that's not to mention "John Barleycorn" or "40,00 Headmen," two excerpts from very different eras of Traffic, but emanating from both of which is a comparably ghostly air thanks in part to Booth's attentive playing.
The best collections of this kind can clearly delineate the breadth of an artist's work and that's certainly the case here. Concentrating on his main instrument of choice over the years, the Hammond B3 organ, Steve Winwood thus downplays his skills with an electric guitar here. Yet when he does pick up that instrument, as on "Had to Cry Today" and "Dear Mr. Fantasy," the rich invention of his playing suggests he might well have joined that heroic hierarchy of the fretboard, British or otherwise, if he had so chosen. No doubt guitarist Jose Neto's skill grows by sharing the stage with his bandleader during such passages.
Rather than imposing homogeneity, the superb recording and mixing here by James Towler (and, in turn, the mastering of John Dent) imparts a continuity to Greatest Hits Live
that allows the diversity of the material to stand out in even greater relief. In addition, the clarity goes a long way to illustrate how Steve's voice, in both timbre and strength, has changed hardly an iota over the decades: he remains as soulful a singer as any of his generation (or beyond for that matter), not to mention the most readily identifiable one.
In recent years, with much the same band-among whose number is Richard Bailey, noteworthy as the drummer on Jeff Beck
's jazz-rock landmark Blow by Blow
(Epic, 1975)-Steve Winwood has conducted his own headlining tours as well as opened stadium sojourns for the higher-profile likes of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
. If Greatest Hits Live
proves anything, however, it is that he resides in a place all his own in the annals of contemporary rock and roll.
CD 1: I’m A Man; Them Changes; Fly; Can’t Find My Way Home; Had To Cry Today; Low Spark of High Heeled Boys; Empty Pages; Back In The High Life Again; Higher Love; Dear Mr Fantasy; Gimme Some Lovin. CD 2: Rainmaker; Pearly Queen; Glad; Why Can’t We Live Together; 40,000 Headmen; Walking In The Wind; Medicated Goo; John Barleycorn; While You See A Chance; Arc Of A Diver; Freedom Overspill; Roll With It.
Steve Winwood: vocals, Hammond B3, guitar, mandolin; Jose Neto: guitar; Richard bailey: drums; Paul Booth: saxophone, flute, Hammond B3; Edson “Cafe” da Silver: percussion.