Writer J.P. McEvoy hangs out in a Medieval Tuscan town with his son Michael who is on tour with Steve Winwood and his band August 1997
It was a late Friday afternoon when I walked into the sleepy café in the small wine village in Northern Tuscany we call our home during July and August. Ciao Aldo, ciao Dino, Otello, Sergio .. Come va? They’re playing the daily endless card game in the cool shadows of Mauro’s café escaping the heat and spinning away another afternoon. Dino was raised in this town overlooking the Lunigiana Hills and as an Italian partisan hid from the Nazis in the nearby Apuane Alps fifty years ago. Now he lives in Chicago and speaks a kind of cumbersome English full of American expressions but with an unmistakeable Italian accent. He spends each summer here in Lunigiana where he grew up playing 36 holes of golf on most days (except on Sunday) at nearby Pisa.
I see your son is playing in Pistoia on Sunday night. I saw the picture in La Nazione.
About the dinner hour on the same day we got a call from Napoli with instructions to turn on Rai Uno live at 9pm. Sure enough, there was Steve Winwood, our son Michael and the funky band that has been getting so many good reviews – playing in front of an enormous crowd in the main square in Napoli and being watched on TV by the largest audience since Robin Hood was Kevin Costner.
I was shocked that the locals already knew that my son Michael – keyboard/guitar/viola player and musical director of Winwood’s band – would be playing in Pistoia as part of a European tour. But the villagers don’t miss a trick and follow our exploits very carefully as the only non-Italian residents. It was true, the band would be playing at the 12th annual Pistoia Blues on Sunday evening and were presently in Napoli to perform with the Italian pop star Zucchero on what I was told would be a TV show. I read the full page spread on Pistoia Blues in La Nazione.
As the word spread around the village that the son of the local Americano was on national television with Zucchero,
everybody tuned in and our life would never be the same again. Winwood and the band were touring Europe after a very successful series of gigs in the UK. We were looking forward to attending the concert in Pistoia, only an hour’s from our casa in the Tuscan hills, to check out the concert.
I have never been to the medieval village of Pistoia before although I have often frequented other better known towns nearby such as Prato, Lucca and of course, Firenze. Immediately after parking the car I could see the top of the Duomo. It was late afternoon, the sun was warm and the buildings were wonderfully medieval. Walking along the cobbled streets towards the main square where the concert was to be held, I immediately became aware of what had been going on for the entire week of the Pistoia Blues 97. The town had been taken over by young people. The street market that is held on Sunday during the last week of the festival completely in full swing. Most of the stands are run by Africans selling items like bum bags and sunglasses, they have been here all week. The buskers with their guitars, bongos and everything that one would associate with a musical festival 20 or 30 years ago is in full evidence. Carved wooden African masks, straw hats, small teak tables, beaded bracelets and black and white photographs of the American Indian Sitting Bull. It is 90 degrees Fahrenheit but I’m protected by a baseball cap and some dark glasses as I stroll along the salubrious street heading towards the main Piazza Duomo. Italian girls are very well exposed in the heat but with tattoos on their backs and shoulders. There is the smell of incense and even tie-dyed T-shirts meaning that Steve Winwood’s songs will be very comfortable with this sixties feel of this crowd. It has been a big week for Pistoia, the blues festival being kicked off by David Bowie and followed by American rhythm and blues kings like BB King and Wilson Pickett. Though Neil Young and his Crazy Horse was not able to appear, the festival is being wound up in style by Winwood and his host in Italy, the ever popular Italian singer, Zucchero.
I’m drawn towards a stand of Brazilians playing pan pipes and surrounded by stalls with silver jewellery, leather bags, candlesticks and T-shirts showing the ubiquitous faces of Che Guevara, Jim Morrison, Freddie Mercury and Sting. A John Beluschi double, beer gut hanging out of his shirt, tries hard on the bongo drums and draws a crowd anticipating a little virtuosity. But he can’t play worth a damn. At the same time, I hear the sound of a real bongo player coming from around the corner in the Piazza Duomo, I recognise it as the percussionist for Winwood’s band, they are starting the sound check. I wander into the square, my sensitive pate protected by a baseball cap from the 1994 Woodstock concert and US tour by Traffic. The security badge given to me by my son marks me as somebody special at Pistoia Blues 97.
Winwood tunes up on a guitar linked by miles of thick cables to a 46 track sound desk tucked away in a shady spot in front of the Baptistry near the beautiful duomo of banded marble. The campanile is surrounded by scaffolding as the sacred aspects of the piazza are almost completely blocked out by this most commercial of festivals which has been going on all week. Winwood delights the crowd with the haunting ‘Can’t Find My Way Back Home’ from the mega selling sixties album Blind Faith and the small crowd on hand for this impromptu sound check is delighted.
Steve is enjoying the tour, relaxed and recovering from a nasty bug which went through the band, and he does a few choruses. The small crowd is thrilled and as he hands the guitar back to a roadie and someone shouts “John Barleycorn” which makes him smile. He will save this for a critical moment in the evening’s concert Then he lowers the decibels, puts down the electric guitar in favour of an acoustic version and transforms the audience with a classic from the 1970s group Traffic when he and Jim Capaldi were writing together. Recently during the tour Capaldi has shown a tendency to appear on stage with his tambourine to harmonise with Steve on the classics which was part of their successful repertoire in the group Traffic.
The same afternoon whilst lounging around their posh hotel panoramic in nearby Montecatini Terme, I told Winwood that the Italian newspaper La Nazione was playing up the magical reunion of Traffic (Il Majica Atmosphere of Traffico Reiunione). He seemed puzzled, almost irritated, that the papers had found out about Capaldi’s guest appearance when he wasn’t sure himself that Jim was going to appear a few hours before the gig. He was reassured by the tour manager, who explains that the press had picked up the information from the hotel rooming list. I remind him that the Italians would tend to stretch the fact somewhat with a name like Capaldi and of course because of their nostalgia for the old Traffic days. Steve lets it pass.
Winwood is easily the most modern of today’s rock legends, this has been the subject of several newspaper and magazine articles in London and Steve has agreed to be interviewed in connection with his new album, Junction Seven. This is his first solo album since the 1990s Refugees of the Heart which the Boston Globe described as “A return to this R&B roots”. In which Steve reclaims his status as one of the best blue-eyed soul singers of his era.
Ostensibly the reason for the present tour is to promote the album Junction Seven, but it sometimes appears that audiences are receiving rather a Winwood retrospective with only three of four new tracks in the two hour set. But nobody is complaining. The’94 tour in which Steve and Capaldi tried to revive Traffic was not a great success. And now Steve is back on the stomp as a solo artist. I see my son on the stage as he does a check on his keyboards and then tunes his viola which he plays on Back in the High Life Again, one of the encore pieces that Winwood saves to finish a concert.
Having met Steve on a number of occasions and yet not having been a fan of Traffic during their heyday years, I am a little taken aback by the awe in which people approach Winwood to say hello, thank him for coming or get him to sign an autograph or have a picture taken. The Italian producer of Pistoia Blues tells Steve in an awkward English that he is so pleased that he is here for this year’s festival.
Reflecting foil blankets are now thrown over the Hammond organ and the piano and Steve gives the thumbs up to the crowd and the sound check is over. Backstage, Walfredo Reyes parades around in tight shorts and complains about the heat, the two backing singers, sisters Emma and Valerie, are hungry and the tour manager indicates that a tavola calda has been lined up for a quick meal. When they return there is much time to kill while two support bands loosen up the crowd and the square fills up. I have a chance to sit on a staircase with my son Michael and Winwood chatting about the tours of past and future. They remark that the crowd in Napoli was phenomenal and the atmosphere in the square was something to behold. I tell them it looked good on TV and give them the information from the day’s newspaper about the large TV audience.
Someone gives Steve a collector’s item of the album Blind Faith showing pictures of Winwood, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech which Steve signs with pleasure. I remark how much the afternoon crowd, me included, enjoyed the haunting Can’t Find My Way Back Home which I am told was from 30 years ago. His track on the famous album which Steve made whilst part of supergroup Blind Faith is still popular. I profess to being very unhip at the time to Winwood’s importance in the world of music. We were fans of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young during that era and I had only known of passing references to the group Traffic. (How was I to know that one of the tracks I liked by CSNY, Dear Mr. Fantasy, was actually written by Winwood and Capaldi ?) Of course, I had heard of the supergroup Blind Faith featuring Winwood and the now extremely popular Eric Clapton and ‘the album of the little boobies’. He quickly remarked “It had nothing to do with me” says Steve, a god-fearing man who included the album in his dedication on Junction Seven. It seemed that the cover was banned in some quarters which gave additional publicity to the record itself.
The parade of people coming to meet Winwood continues, they glaze over as they shake hands with the great blue-eyed blues singer. A Cuban friend of Walfredo – the band’s percussionist – is introduced. As a guitarist who plays with the support band, he wants to just shake the hand of Winwood. Agents, managers, and photographers cluster around. The presence of muscle men who handle security and young women with bodies to die for – without a sign of cellulite and dressed in black – announce to the band some details about timings.
The festival’s publicity man explains to Steve that Traffic is extremely popular in Italy, “We love Traffic” he says. Steve responds by saying this is not a Traffic concert, in fact not a Traffic concert even if Capaldi does show up and join him on the popular ‘John Barleycorn’. He sounds a little agitated as he explains that even though the name which was devised by Winwood and Capaldi, the legal rights belong to Chris Blackwell, the Island Records producer and former friend of Steve’s who will not allow them to use the name without a substantial fee. The strain in Steve’s voice indicates that this is not a happy relationship and stands as advice to aspiring young musicians to read the small print.
There is no question that Winwood enjoys performing and it’s contagious to watch the set with Winwood and the good band he presently has. Almost certainly he would rather be back in his Gloucestershire farm with his wife Genia and their four children, but the show must go on and top recording artists like Steve must promote their new albums. Even David Bowie, certainly with a larger fortune than Winwood from his touring and recording, must tour as part of the lucrative contracts with the record companies like Virgin. A look at the Virgin website lists the artists who they are presently promoting and when the Virgin machine gets in gear they do promote.
Since the green light has been given on the Winwood tour to promote Junction Seven, there has been press releases and giant posters of Steve plastered around London, live TV performances in Madrid and Paris and particularly in London where his new band was a guest on the Jools Holland show with James Taylor, and a live session on the VH1 channel for about an hour. Imagine being able to play your new single at the time of the TV lottery draw when everyone in the country is glued to their television to see if they have won a couple of million. Winwood and his band did that last month. The hip upbeat rendition of Spy In The House Of Love contrasted dramatically with the homespun sheepishness of the BBC’s Terry Wogan. It was laughable. Wogan did however wish the band good luck on their short USA tour in which they appeared on the David Letterman show and a new afternoon television show with presenter Rosie O’Donnell. From there they flew across the US to Los Angeles where Steve is a big favourite and played a live internet concert in front of the the Virgin Megastore on Sunset Boulevard Now that’s what I call promotion.
Meanwhile back in Pistoia the countdown continues. The Italians love a stage set and they have turned the piazza into a massive outdoor studio, spotlights are everywhere, speakers the size of a movie screens are on each side of the stage and giant hard suitcases on wheels are stacked all around the stage. Everything has been set up and tested by the competent crew of ten men in black t-shirts who work with the efficiency of the Israeli army. The famous Winwood Hammond organ is well tuned and ready to go, the crowd patiently sits on the ancient stones of Pistoia’s medieval square.
It’s a young crowd and the shiny pates of the London club concerts are now not in evidence. These are not ravers slopping around in the mud of Woodstock or Glastonbury. Only a small group is standing in the front. Couples in their thirties, forties and fifties are eating packed lunches and sitting on the ground waiting for the show to begin. You can tell the women under 30 because their belly buttons are showing.
Finally the support band begins to play and they are atrocious but the crowd has its mind on Winwood and the charismatic Italian mega recording star, Zucchero. Only two nights before when the Italian had played host to Winwood in Napoli that was a Zucchero gig, tonight they have equal billing.
As the support band plays I move away from the speakers as the bass is distorted out of all recognition of music. The drumbeat could kill a canary at a hundred yards. This music sounds so primitive and amateurish compared to Winwood’s slick sound, but maybe I’m prejudiced as my son is Steve’s musical director. But that’s a story in itself.