If you ask lead vocalist Leroy “Lonnie” Jordan, War was always ahead of its time.
The influential, often-sampled band arrived on the music scene in 1969 with a hard-to-define blend of funk, jazz, soul, Latin and rock, plus a multiethnic lineup that transcended racial and cultural barriers. What’s more, its songs — including “The Cisco Kid,” “Low Rider,” “The World Is a Ghetto” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” — showcased sociopolitical messages about poverty, racism and crime filtered through a laid-back Southern California lens.
“When I turn on the radio, I’m always hearing our songs,” said Jordan, the group’s sole remaining founding member. “And I realize, ‘Wow, (our music) is sounding better and better.’ It sounds like today.”
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What united War from the start, Jordan said, was the band members’ shared background.
“We all had the same dream, growing up in the same (area). We all saw the same things,” said the Compton native, whose original band mates — Harold Brown, Morris “B.B.” Dickerson, Charles Miller and Howard E. Scott — also hailed from Los Angeles County. “All we had was our radio … and our black-and-white TV with a couple of channels on it.”
What filtered through those tinny speakers was a mishmash of musical influences. Jordan remembers listening to a “mixed salad bowl” of sounds — ranging from country-and-western stars Patsy Cline and Hank Williams to jazz legends Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie to Latin artists Celia Cruz and Mongo Santamaria.
It was that multifaceted sound — Jordan calls it “universal street music” — that attracted ex-Animals singer Eric Burdon and record producer Jerry Goldstein to the band, originally called The Creators.
They released their first two albums as War in 1970: “Eric Burdon Declares ‘War,’ ” followed by “The Black-Man’s Burdon.”
“We didn’t even think … any of our music would ever make it on the radio because it was so different,” Jordan recalled. “Next thing we knew people started liking it because it was different.”
Although War’s sociopolitical stance was assuredly part of its appeal, Jordan said, “We weren’t trying to be political.”
“We were inspired by our own experiences from the streets, so that’s all we knew to write about,” he said.
“I pretty much blame our fans for our music,” he added with a chuckle. “They inspire us to pick up a pen and go into the studio and create a soundtrack (for life).”
That’s true of “Evolutionary,” War’s first new studio album in 20 years. Released May 19, the album opts for a more overtly uplifting vibe than past releases.
With 1972’s “The World Is a Ghetto,” “We were able to let people know ‘It’s not just your world, it’s not just your backyard (where) you’re living in poverty. We can tell you from our travels that the world is a ghetto,’ ” Jordan explained. “Now I want people to take notice of their surroundings (again) ... and take advantage of the sunshine while it’s still out.”
“Why go negative?” he asked. “Let’s do something happy. Let’s make the majority of the album ‘up.’ ”
“Evolutionary,” which was written and produced by Goldstein and Jordan, features a mix of familiar favorites and new tracks such as “Mamacita” and “That L.A. Sunshine” — as well as collaborations with the likes of Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, spoken word artist Malik Yusef, the Tower of Power horn section and the USC Trojan Marching Band.
Cheech and Chong also make an appearance.
“It’s like a reunion,” Jordan said, noting that the 1978 Cheech and Chong movie “Up In Smoke” marked the first time moviegoers heard War’s music. “They actually launched ‘Low Rider’ even more into the public’s ears.”
Decades later, War continues to tour regularly despite multiple lineup changes.
Burdon left the band in 1971, while Dickerson parted ways with War in 1979.
Dickerson later teamed up with core group members Brown, Lee Oskar and Scott, who split in 1994, to create the Lowrider Band. Unlike Goldstein, who challenged that group’s right to use the name “War” in federal court, Jordan doesn’t seem to hold any hard feelings toward his former band mates.
“We had a good marriage at one time and we had beautiful babies — which was our music — but we had a bad divorce,” Jordan explained.
Personally, he has no plans to quit War.
“I’m really loyal to our fans. I’m as loyal to them as they are to me,” he said.
IF YOU GO
War, with Cheech and Chong
8 p.m. Friday, doors open at 6:30
Vina Robles Amphitheatre, 3800 Mill Road, Paso Robles
$40 to $65
227-4812 or www.vinaroblesamphitheatre.com
UPCOMING AT VINA ROBLES
Want to see a show at Vina Robles Amphitheatre? Here are other acts coming to the venue this year.
July 12: Kenny Loggins with Blue Sky Riders ($32 to $65)
Aug. 8: Sarah Brightman ($50 to $150)
Aug. 9: Tedeschi Trucks Band with Jackie Greene ($30 to $75)
Aug. 10: Dirty Heads and Pepper with Aer ($29 to $39)
Aug. 13: Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth, Blues Traveler and Uncle Kracker ($29.50 to $49.50)
Sept. 12: Weezer ($43 to $70)
Sept. 13: Jennifer Nettles ($45 to $70)
Sept. 14: Chicago ($41 to $91)
Sept. 21: Jeff Dunham ($40 to $65)
Sept. 30: Crosby, Stills & Nash ($41 to $91)
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.