[Three and a half stars]
In a career spanning over four decades Steve Winwood has attached himself to music that has been iconic of the era. His long stint with Traffic had produced such seminal albums like Mr Fantasy, John Barleycorn Must Die and The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. The latter had songs like ‘Hidden Treasure’ and the 11-plus minute title track, which summed up the free-for-all vibe of the Sixties and the Seventies to which Traffic, at its peak, belonged. As a solo artist in the in the Eighties and Nineties, Winwood returned with unmitigated pop and pop-rock (different from the Mike & the Mechanics variety).While there was great yuppie charm in songs like ‘Spanish Dancer’, ‘Roll With It’, ‘Higher Love’ and ‘Back In The High Life Again’, Winwood loyalists dating back to the hallucinogenic days of Blind Faith and Traffic rued a demise. With his nine-track, ninth solo album, Nine Lives, the British multi-instrumentalist and vocalist again shifts gear. In fact, he’s engaged the reverse cog. Nine Lives offers a sound that is part blues, part jazz, part free-wheeling jam and is every bit vintage, too. There is an inspiring return of the Hammond organ in the rollicking ‘We’re All Looking’ and ‘Dirty City’, with Blind Faith-mate Eric Clapton working up a passionate guitar part in the latter. The connect to Winwood’s past is cemented by the obvious similarities between the opening keyboard progression of ‘Dirty City’ to that of ‘The Low Spark…’ number, recorded 38 years back. ‘Fly’, with its charming interplay between Latin percussion, acoustic guitar, sax and Celtic whistle, is seductive, while ‘Raging Sea’ is laid out on a viciously merry groove. Towards the end of the album ‘Secrets’ and ‘Other Shore’ drag, though Winwood makes amends with his soulful singing in ‘At Times We Do Forget’. It’s too early to say whether Winwood has created a sound emblematic of its time but for now, Nine Lives is good fun.