Winwood shifts into Traffic zone

Special to The Times

After spending the ‘80s and ‘90s mostly making polished pop hits, Steve Winwood was ready to reconnect with the looser vibe of his ‘60s and ‘70s band Traffic.

So he turned to a young band that had reminded him at least of Traffic’s spirit, if not exactly its musical approach: the String Cheese Incident.

But Winwood wasn’t looking for artistic input from the Colorado jam band. He was looking for business direction -- and he liked what he heard.

Winwood’s career is now being handled by Madison House, the management wing of the String Cheese empire, and his new album, “About Time,” will be released June 17 by his own new Wincraft Music label, administered by the String Cheese-owned SCI Fidelity Records.


It’s all designed to move Winwood away from the music he’s probably best known for -- adult-rock staples such as “Back in the High Life Again” and “Roll With It” -- in favor of a looser and arguably more enduring approach.

“Their music contains the kind of freedom and fluidity which Traffic and many other bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s were playing,” says Winwood, 55. “They were jam bands, really. I myself drifted in the ‘80s and ‘90s into a slightly more homogenized-process style of music, which I’m now slightly distancing myself from in terms of how the music is produced and played.”

The album reflects this move, with Winwood playing mostly Hammond organ on 11 extended, free-flowing songs. The material incorporates some touches of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean rhythms and his familiar voice. It’s certainly closer in tone to the rustic English flow of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” than to his slicker ‘80s hits.

To emphasize the shift, Winwood will launch the album with a week of shows opening for the Dead, the band that reunites the core members of the Grateful Dead. He’ll also headline smaller shows, with a full tour of indoor theaters planned to start later in summer. Los Angeles dates are expected in the fall.


Will the people who bought all those ‘80s Winwood albums be interested in the new/old Winwood?

“About demographics and who comes to the shows or buys the records, I’m not so much of an expert, sadly,” Winwood says. “Really, I felt that if I wanted to carry on making records and carry on playing live, then I really want to be doing exactly what I want to be doing. Sounds a bit selfish, but being an artist is ultimately a bit of a selfish pastime, and I hope other people enjoy it, and that’s probably the only way to move forward. So I just followed my heart.”

On the road with the Ramones

The road with the Ramones was a rough ride, from the beginning in New York clubs before punk was cool, to the cancer death of singer Joey Ramone in 2001 and the drug-related death of guitarist Dee Dee Ramone last year. That story is being told in a film that gets an L.A, showing this week, and in a book that’s in the works by the one person besides the band members who was there the whole time.


Monte A. Melnick, the Ramones’ road manager throughout the punk pioneers’ career, is writing a memoir about the experience, to be published by Sanctuary Books in November. Co-writing is Frank Meyers, a veteran rock journalist who was also the leader of the L.A.-based band the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs. “The book is basically on the road with the Ramones, looking at the group through Monte’s eyes,” says Meyers. “He was the one stable force in an insane band.”

A few episodes:

* Dee Dee overdosed on pills and booze one night during the filming of “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and was taken away in a police car -- and still made his call time on the set the next morning.

* Joey suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Ramones activities were sometimes governed by his ritualistic behavior.


* A Secret Service detail made for odd backstage visitors when first daughter Amy Carter attended a Ramones show and was taken to meet the band.

Meyers is complementing Melnick’s narrative with material from his interviews with the band members, wives, girlfriends, producers, managers and others.

Melnick is also one of the many Ramones associates interviewed in “Ramones: End of the Century,” a two-hour, warts-and-all documentary on the contentious quartet. Such early New York peers as Blondie’s Deborah Harry and admirers including the late Joe Strummer of the Clash and Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols are also among those expounding on the band.

The film, which includes rare footage of early Ramones shows, will be screened Thursday at the American Cinematheque’s Independent Film Showcase at the Egyptian Theatre.


Small faces

* Sinead O’Connor has announced her impending retirement from music, but among her wrap-up recordings is a song for the movie “Veronica Guerin,” which stars Cate Blanchett as a real-life Dublin attorney who was murdered in 1996 after exposing powerful drug lords. The song, “One More Day,” is built around Gaelic folk poetry, with English lyrics by producer Trevor Horn and O’Connor singing in both languages.

* Willie Nelson has been playing mentor to young Texas band Los Lonely Boys. Brothers Henry, Jojo and Ringo Garza recorded their debut album (due Aug. 12) at Nelson’s studio with producer John Porter and are booked to play the country outlaw’s Fourth of July picnic, on a bill that features the Dead, Neil Young and Merle Haggard.

* Following his gospel album “Believe,” Aaron Neville has finished his first foray into jazz standards for “Nature Boy,” due from Verve Records on Aug. 26.