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Traffic-esque effort adds to impressive body of work

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Steve Winwood‘s ninth solo album, Nine Lives (Wincraft Music/Columbia Records), is a strong set of musical arrangements featuring songs that confront an uncertain world. Musically, there also is more than a passing echo to Traffic, Winwood’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band.

The opening track, “I’m Not Drowning,” is a gripping acoustic blues number that places the listener right on the front porch of a shack in some timeless Southern town. The music (Winwood plays all the instruments on this number) and the lyrics (“Keep running/don’t matter if the highway’s lost” and ” Clouds are breaking/I’m not drowning now/drowning now…”) are all too reminiscent of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe and its victims.

With the second cut, “Fly,” Winwood is joined by his core band, and the result is a trademark Winwood tale of starting over, turning pages and moving on with hope (“there is hope/if you can see/I give it all to you/you give it allto me”). Paul Booth‘s soprano sax playing and Jose Pires de Almeida Neto‘s guitar save the tune from falling into the lite-FM category.

With “Raging Sea,” the album kicks into high gear. This time, the narrator is an explorer/soldier (heading to Iraq?) leaving home with hopes of a return. “Dirty City,” which features an edgy guitar solo by Eric Clapton, could be subtitled “Back in the Low Life Again.” The father in the song sees his son turned into a street thug by a local gangster; it’s a bleak tale whose moral has too often repeated itself over the years. Winwood’s ubiquitous Hammond organ blankets the arrangement with a heavy, funereal tapestry of grim inevitability.

“Hungry Man,” one of the album’s highlights, could have been written by John Steinbeck in between chapters of “The Grapes of Wrath.” It’s an obvious grass-roots anthem, and the chorus (“I’m just one/one more poor hungry man”) is driven home amidst a swirling cascade of melody that would have found a place on any Traffic album produced during the ’70s.

Richard Bailey‘s drums and Karl Vanden Bossche‘s conga and percussion (reminiscent of Rebop Kwaku Baah‘s eclectic contributions to Traffic) lay the groundwork for Jose Neto‘s and Tim Cansfield‘s guitars.

Fine things also can be said of Booth’s saxophone and flute playing (which recalls original Traffic member Chris Wood‘s stellar work). Peter Godwin, Winwood’s co-lyricist on these songs (along with Neto on most) is a capable (but at times unoriginal) complement to Winwood’s style of songwriting (and a far cry from late Jim Capaldi of Traffic, one of his best collaborators).

Winwood’s production is first-rate. His vocals are a bit fragile, but nonetheless effective. Nine Lives is a fine addition to Winwood’s oeuvre and one of his strongest, most consistent works in years.

— By Donald Gavron