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Steve Winwood relaxes in a hotel room in New York City, talking by telephone to reporters in every city he's about to hit on his current U.S. tour. The 43-year-old rock 'n' roll survivor has quietly endured a slew of critical jabs during the last few years for the highly commercial turns his career had taken. Those turns included performing in commercials for Michelob, donning duds for GQ and cavorting with models in his videos. So he's relishing the opportunity to hear journalists finally conceding that he managed, better than any other Sixties rock veteran, to ride out the Eighties in style.

But just as his detractors are acknowledging the validity of Winwood's more conservative, polished Eighties product, the former Traffic leader is pushing his image, and his music, in the opposite direction. "I can't tell you that I've decided to change my approach in response to the criticism that I've had," Winwood says. "I've just done that because I feel most of the music of the last few years has gotten very polished, produced and groomed. It's become more of a commodity.

"So with the new record Refugees of the Heart, I thought it wouldn't do any harm to bring elements of the Sixties and Seventies back into my music--like longer instrumental passages, more atmospheric sounds. I feel like I'm going into a Traffic renaissance of some sort. And maybe that's a reaction against the stability that my music and lifestyle had gone towards."

Winwood has been growing his hair longer and jamming with other musicians in a freeform style reminiscent of Traffic's heady days. This from the man who once dismissed punk rockers as "advanced hippies" and shrugged, "I'd been through that antiestablishment thing in the Sixties, and during the Seventies I suddenly realized the value of being establishment." Is he actually turning antiestablishment again--at a time when most of his generation is firmly entrenched in the conservative lifestyle he practically pioneered?

"Maybe," Winwood says with a laugh. "You know, the grass is always greener."

Winwood seems to be switching gears and looking for adventure at a time when most of his longtime fans are finally settling in for the safe, unchallenging ride he began with 1986's ultraslick Back in the High Life and the subsequent Roll With It. That may be because for Winwood, the kinder and gentler Nineties arrived about eighteen years ahead of schedule.

In 1972, most of rock's artists and listeners were still actively exploring the excesses of the lifestyle. But the visionary leader of Traffic, one of the late Sixties' most dreamily psychedelic bands, was already swearing off drugs and extolling the virtues of exercise and proper diet.

Winwood had been struck by a sudden bout of peritonitis, a potentially fatal disease he describes as "the last stage of a serious poisoning of the system." That forced him to adopt a conservative lifestyle that most of his contemporaries wouldn't dream of joining until well into the next decade.

"That was an important change in my life," says Winwood. "Not only from the point of self-preservation, but also it enabled me to see that there were other things in life besides just the musical lifestyle that I had been locked into. I kind of discovered other things, like sports and farming."

The ace keyboard player and singer skyrocketed to fame at the tender age of fifteen as lead singer of the Spencer Davis Group, for which he wrote and sang such classics as "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm a Man." Jumping off the rock-star treadmill was a revelation. Winwood began hanging out with ordinary "nine-to-fivers" at his rural home in Gloucestershire, England, and applying a more disciplined, workaday approach to his songwriting--when he chose to make music at all.

Naturally, when the Eighties did arrive, Winwood was well-equipped to work within the corporate-minded, meticulously packaged music business that seemed to alienate so many of his peers. More than any other veteran of rock's adventurous second decade, Winwood was happy to don stylish suits, take dancing instruction (his new manager has handled Madonna and Michael Jackson), and even license a couple of his songs for use in beer commercials.

The moves brought Winwood the most successful hits of his career. But his behavior also drew fire from critics and fans alike. They felt Winwood, whose talent as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist had always been held in the highest regard, was cashing in his credibility in order to become a popular entertainer.

Today, Winwood appears to have done an about-face on each of those decisions. "There's no production or dancing or any of that kind of thing. I'm playing instruments much more on stage now," he says. "The new show is about interaction with musicians and musicianship more than anything else. I'm more comfortable with that. There are people who can entertain and dance and do videos better than I can. So I'm prepared to leave that to them and concentrate on what I do best, which is play."

Nevertheless, Winwood has no regrets about his MTV training. "I feel that it was important for me at that point to come out and be a bit more visible." He doesn't apologize, either, for selling his song "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do" to Michelob for use in a TV commercial before the song was even released on an album.

"I didn't write a beer commercial," he insists. "I wrote a seven-minute song that had nothing to do with beer." The fact that his current tour has no corporate sponsor shouldn't suggest that he views his endorsement deal with Michelob as a mistake.

"None of that criticism really held water with me," he says. "I mean, why should people feel that rock 'n' roll isn't meant to be associated with corporate sponsorship? All record companies have always been big corporations, and they sponsor their artists as much as anybody. I think it was just a fashionable kind of thing that went across the country where it was suddenly kind of a fad to say rock 'n' roll shouldn't be involved to sell a product," he says. "I mean, it was all rather silly."

If Winwood has no regrets about the moves he made to achieve multiplatinum success on his two most recent albums, why is he altering his sure-fire formula? For all its well-crafted songwriting and slickly produced sheen, Refugees of the Heart is, as Winwood suggests, a bit of a throwback to his Traffic days. Five of the album's eight songs sprawl out over five minutes in length. And the album's lead song, "You'll Keep on Searching," fades in with an atmospheric sax and piano interplay strikingly reminiscent of "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys."

While Traffic has continued to get airplay on album-rock radio, the country is hardly in the grip of a Doors-like fascination with the band. After having successfully established himself as a solo artist in his own right, why would Winwood feel the need to resurrect remnants of his old sound?

"I don't know," Winwood says with a laugh. "I've never really tried to aim for a market, anyway. I just try to make an album that I like and if I'm satisfied with it when it's done, then I feel it's successful. But obviously there's something a bit wrong if all the albums you think are great, no one else buys."

Winwood experienced that problem himself with the string of experimental albums he made following Traffic's demise in the mid-Seventies. Indeed, ten years before Paul Simon would bring world-beat music to the masses with his Grammy garnering cross- cultural smash Graceland, Winwood was busy. He made little-heard albums with Japanese percussionists, Latin salsa musicians and, yes, even a collaboration with a number of African musicians. The latter was deemed too uncommercial for release.

Now Winwood feels he's got the hang of making albums both he and the record-buying public can enjoy together. So far, sales of Refugees have been slower than for his last two chart-toppers. But then, the durable star has had plenty of practice at waiting for his audience to come around to his way of doing things.

"I'm satisfied with it," Winwood says of his latest change in direction. "And that's all I've ever really looked for."

Steve Winwood will perform at Desert Sky Pavilion on Wednesday, May 8. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. "I feel like I'm going into a Traffic renaissance of some sort."

Critics and fans alike felt he was cashing in his credibility in order to become a popular entertainer.

"Why should people feel that rock 'n' roll isn't meant to be associated with corporate sponsorship?"

"I didn't write a beer commercial. I wrote a seven-minute song that had nothing to do with beer.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern