Dear Mr. Fantasy

Dear Mr. Fantasy Dear Mr. Fantasy
A Tribute To Jim Capaldi

3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Tribute albums are usually hit and miss, and this one’s no exception. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” was recorded on January 21, 2007 at the Roadhouse in London to celebrate the life and music of Traffic’s late drummer/singer, one of the most underrated songwriters in rock. Steve Winwood is a natural. He was Capaldi’s friend, bandmate and co-writer for 35 years and they made frequent guest appearances on each other’s solo albums. Paul Weller frequently cites Traffic as one his influences and sang on Capaldi’s “Anna Julia.” Weller even coaxed Winwood into playing keyboard on his best known album, “Stanley Road.” Peter Townsend, the wind milling guitar player for The Who, was a contemporary of Capaldi’s – they became close friends when most of Traffic (Winwood, Capaldi, bassist Rick Grech and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah) participated in Eric Clapton’s ballyhooed comeback at the Rainbow Theater in 1973. Simon Kirke, thunder-footed drummer for Free and Bad Company, manned the kit on several of Capaldi’s solo albums, including “Electric Nights,” “Let The Thunder Cry,” and “One Man Mission.” Eagle and James Gang axe man Joe Walsh was an admirer (and worked with Winwood on his “Back In The Highlife” album), as was Yusef Islam (the former Cat Stevens). Deep Purple’s former keyboard player Jon Lord and former Stones bassist Bill Wyman also recorded in the same era as Capaldi, although there’s nothing to indicate they were close mates. Phil Capaldi of course, is Jim’s brother. But what the heck are the Storys, former Dr. Hook vocalist Dennis Locorriere, Margo Buchanan, Mark Rivera and Stevie Lange doing here? And who the heck are Buchanan, Rivera and Lange?

There’s also a surprising dearth of former Traffickers. It’s no shock founding member Chris Wood, who played sax, flute and keyboards for Traffic couldn’t make it. He’s been dead since 1983 and it appears he’s going to stay that way. Ditto Rebop and Rick Grech, who also died in 1983 and 1990, respectively. Uberdrummer Jim Gordon is still institutionalized, but no Roscoe Gee? Maybe the bassist couldn’t get away from his day job as music director for a Swedish TV show. None of the semi-retired guys from Muscle Shoals band (bassist David Hood, keyboardist Barry Beckett, drummer Roger Hawkins, guitarist Jimmy Johnson) who ably backed Traffic and Capaldi in the 70s is here either. But the most glaring omissions are “The Contenders,” the guys who recorded with Capaldi in his band and were with him for as long has he was in Traffic. Guitarist Mick Dolan, bassist Pete Vale, and keyboard player Chris Parren not only played with Capaldi, they were co-writers on some of songs. Fortunately, guitarist Peter Bonas from the band is included. Fellow Trafficker Dave Mason’s absence is academic. As long as Winwood can draw a breath, he’ll never play in the same time zone with the bull-headed Mason again. Even the unflappable Capaldi wound up with a bad taste in his mouth after touring with Mason in the late 1990s. Although their tour was billed as “Mason-Capaldi – A celebration of the Music of Traffic”—Mason treated Capaldi like a sideman, nearly pushing him off stage. Are you happy playing those 200 seat venues by yourself now, Dave?

Traffic’s earliest hits in 1967 were Dave Mason’s sappy psychedelic fairy tale “Hole In My Shoe,” (which Winwood, Capaldi and Wood disliked so much they never performed it live), and the Winwood-Capaldi ode to the Summer of Love, “Paper Sun,” the lead off track on their debut album “Mr. Fantasy.” Paul Weller tries to revisit the song’s sunny optimism, but winds up eclipsing its beauty. Mark Rivera does an exacting imitation of Chris Wood’s wobbling sax, and drummer Simon Kirke adds plenty of step. Weller is a bit arcane, though. “Paper Sun” is an odd choice considering how hard it is to recreate period music for a record buying public that probably wasn’t born when the song was waxed. It’s also nowhere near being Traffic’s best song. And why not try “Dealer,” the song Capaldi actually sang on the album?

In answer to the question “Who’s Stevie Lang, and what’s she doing on this CD?” Lang was a back up vocalist on several Capaldi solo cuts, most notably “I’ll Always Be Your Fool,” from “Fierce Heart.” She also appeared – albeit briefly – on “Lost Inside Your Love” from “One Man Mission of Love,” which was penned by Capaldi and the members of the Santana Band (Carlos Santana, Greg Walker, Chester Thompson and Orestes Vilanto). It turns out that like Stevie Nicks, this Stevie is no dude. And like the other Stevie, she’s not much of a vocalist either. A capable but insignificant R & B singer in the tradition of Thelma Houston, Merry Clayton or Roberta Hightower, Lange has plenty of energy, but little skill, and she blows out her voice before she’s halfway through.

Sounding more and more like Bill Murray’s character in “Caddyshack,” Joe Walsh plucks one of Capaldi’s later day gems, “Living on the Outside.” Joe may garble his words like a 70s stoner, but he can still make a guitar sing. Jon Lord has plenty of vigor in his digits, laying down a thick solo on the Hammond organ. Bill Wyman, who’s never played a discernable note, is present on bass, but even with today’s technology, you still can’t hear him. Give Joe credit for picking one of Capaldi’s stronger songs.

“Elixir of Life” from “The Contender” (released on the “Daughter of the Night” album in the U.S.) is one of Capaldi’s weaker songs and is a waste of space. Dennis Locorriere tries to make it sound dramatic, barking out the lyrics Drama 101 style, but this is simply a bad choice, and at one point he even has problems actually saying “elixir.” Locorriere, who makes his living these days in England recreating Dr. Hook’s stage act, blows out a nice “Long Train Runnin’” harp solo, but needs to lay off trying to scream. It sounds like it hurts, and it certainly is distressful to listen to him try and do it. Former Elton John percussionist Ray Cooper is no Rebop on congas, but he’s steady and busy, coaxing along the beat, and Mark Rivera lays down more wood on sax than the self-taught Chris Wood ever could. “Elixir” is a musical fountain of youth, but vocal poison.

“Whale Meat Again” was one of Capaldi’s more vitriolic songs about the ecology: “Whale meat again, under the sun. Every twelve minutes another one gone. His meat’s in your make up, his flesh is on your lips, as a nuclear warhead explodes in his hips…” This is drummer Simon Kirke’s spotlight and surprise – he’s singing and playing the drums simultaneously. Simon never got to sing much because he was usually the drummer behind one of rock’s greatest vocalists, Paul Rodgers. His voice is fresh, not particularly powerful, but clean. Paul “Wix” Wickens organ is a virtual wind tunnel, a stunning, burning whirlpool of sound. Peter Bonas’ solo is as piercing as Pete Drake was on the original, and Rivera managed to make his sax sound like a trio of sinister assassins. Wait a minute…What the heck is a verse of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” doing here? Okay, “The Quiet Beatle” is gone too, but George already had his own tribute. A great rendition, except for the inclusion of “While my Guitar…”

The Storys perform “Love’s Got A Hold On Me” from “Living On The Outside.” The lead singer sounds a bit like Timothy Schmidt from the Eagles, wimpy in a romantic sort of way. I may not know who the Storys are, but I intend to find out. This is well done, in a west coast adult contemporary style with feng shui harmonies. Gentleman Jim would be proud, especially with some of the high notes the singer hits. Capaldi was a rocker, but made his money and notoriety writing love songs, including this one. This is music to cuddle by and it restores the integrity to Gentleman Jim’s music.

Joe Walsh returns for “40,000 Headmen,” one of Traffic’s early gems. Mark Rivera doesn’t put the same ghostly whisper into his flute playing that Chris Wood did, and Walsh’s wobbly old man Gabby Hates vocal lacks the proper menace. Winwood originally sang this one and it should have been assigned to him, but it’s such a good song the music holds it up, especially when Walsh turns on the echo and shreds up a nice ending.

“Man With No Country” is another odd choice for a selection, given it came off of one of Capaldi’s more obscure albums, “The Smell of Sweet Success,” (which saw precious little). Cat Stevens, sorry, Yusef Islam, may be making a statement here. (He’s basically a man with no country, get it?) There’s some attention-grabbing concert style piano by Paul “Wix” Wickens mixed in with the song’s Latin American influences. Like Kirke, Stevens takes a few liberties with the arrangement, singing one of the verses in Zulu (yes, Zulu) and sneaking in a verse of “Wild World,” which actually fits the pattern of the song and gets a nice round of applause. But again, this is supposed to be about Capaldi, so pulling this stunt after Kirke’s already done it is overkill. Self promotion aside, Stevens still has a great voice and his acoustic guitar playing is full, and Wickens really deserves to take a bow.

“Light Up Or Leave Me Alone” is one of Capaldi’s signature tunes from his days in Traffic. It’s a good choice, and it gets a funkier than usual treatment from Steve Winwood and his band. Winwood plays organ on this version rather than guitar, which is odd given the original was 90% guitar. Winwood does do a yeoman’s job on Hammond organ and Paul Booth’s jazzy sax is creative and jumpy, which is a nice touch given that Traffic’s sax player, Chris Wood, usually sat this song out.

Winwood wisely picks up the guitar for “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” one of Traffic’s stone classics and a song closely associated with Capaldi. Capaldi woke up one night to hear Wood and Winwood jamming to what became the bedrock for the song. Basing the tune on the antics of a lysergically altered friend, Capaldi penned the lyrics in a fit of inspiration in a matter of minutes. Winwood is transcendental against Wickens throaty keyboards and Kirke/Newmark’s punchy beat. The best version of this tune is on Traffic’s 1971 live album “Welcome To The Canteen,” in which Winwood and Dave Mason take out their mutual dislike for one another on their guitars, creating one of the best gunslinging duels since the Earps fought the Clantons. Hard to beat the muscular drumming of Jim Gordon on that one as well, but Winwood’s drummer, Richard Bailey, hits the right cues. The live version on “Canteen’ also has Rick Grech’s in your face bass and irreproachable percussion from Rebop, but this version is worthy of Capaldi’s legacy, thanks to an inspired performance by Winwood, who truly is an underrated guitarist.

“Evil Love,” performed by Gary Moore, is an obscure piece even to this Capaldifile that runs a daunting 8:24. Moore is a completely over the top turn-it-up-to-ten old school guitarist, whose best performance “Still Got The Blues” was a ballad, (and that even featured some only-dogs-can-hear-it guitar). Give Moore a platform and he’ll turn everything into a guitar spectacle. Moore wails, growls, and snarls, and so does his guitar. At one point he launches into a mind boggling solo that rivals the supersonic digits of Alvin Lee or Eric Clapton. This guy’s showy, but he’s also good, although you can’t listen to more than one or two of his Panzer assaults without losing a portion of your hearing or your mind. To his credit, Moore has a bluesy set of pipes.

“Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” is another bizarre choice for a pick, credited to all four founding Traffic members. It stunk in 1967 and it stinks now, despite Paul Weller’s enthusiastic interpretation. C’mon Paul, on an album that includes “Heaven Is In Your Mind,” “Smiling Phases,” “Coloured Rain,” and “Dealer,” you chose this out of date circus clunker?

“Let Me Make Something Into Your Life” is actually more closely associated with Steve Winwood, having appeared on his first self-titled solo album. Capaldi’s influence loomed large on that album – he wrote the lyrics for most of the songs, with Winwood writing the music, just like they did in Traffic – only Winwood was now calling all the shots. A dead giveaway that the songs on Winwood’s first album weren’t Capaldi’s best efforts is that none of them ever appeared on any of his own albums. Ironically, Winwood doesn’t handle the vocals here either. Stevie Lange, faceless as ever, blands it up, but at least she’s cleared her throat. Her performance here is a huge improvement over her first imperious vocal. She sounds a bit like Yvonne Elliman, but could really use some sort of jolt to establish her own persona (whatever that may be). “Let Me Make Something Into Your Life” is a passable song done impossibly wrong.

Capaldi’s brother, Phil, sings “Gifts of Unknown Things,” the mystical track that ended Capaldi’s superb 1983 album “Fierce Heart.” Phil is a dead sound-alike to Paul Weller. Somebody should get this guy his own solo contract. Jon Lord gives another tasteful cutaway on organ and Wyman is supposedly back. I’ve been listening to Lord since I heard Deep Purple’s “Hush” in 1967 and he’s never disappointed me. I’ve also been listening to Bill Wyman for about as long and I’ve yet to understand what purpose he serves, other than as a reminder he quit the easiest gig in the world (The Stones).

Add Margo Buchanan to the list of today’s soulless female singers. Put her beside Stevie Lange and you’d have a hard time telling them apart. Their slightly hoarse phrasing is the same, and they both come perilously close to losing it when they reach for the high notes. “Love You ‘Til The Day I Die” is another good song that dies a slow death -- and it isn’t helped by the normally reliable Mark Rivera adding to much Las Vegas pizzazz to his solos.

One of Traffic’s most thoughtful tunes, “No Name No Face No Number,” gets the “Tommy can you hear me” treatment from Pete Townsend, who plays his acoustic as if he’s about to swing it over his head and bash it against an amp. Doesn’t this guy know this is a ballad? He messes with the song’s meter, turning what was once a romantic song into a track meet. If you needed any further proof that Pete Townsend has lost his hearing, this is it. Townsend simply takes a great song and murders it.

One of the last artists you would think would attempt “John Barleycorn Must Die” would be Joe Walsh. The thought of mumbling Joe performing English folk is scary. But his wobbly old man voice serves him well, as does Mark Rivera filling in for Chris Wood. Still, this is a tune more associated with Wood, who discovered the song and brought it to Winwood and Capaldi. True, Capaldi shared part of the vocal with Winwood, but this really was Winwood and Wood’s territory; Capaldi didn’t write it. And one has to once again ask the nagging question…With Steve Winwood in the waiting room, why didn’t he perform this one? Guess he can’t sing ‘em all.

“Pearly Queen” from Traffic’s second album was one the group’s out right rockers. Weller misses his cues on both the first and second verses, but plays his way out of trouble with some blistering guitar solos.

Having “Rock and Roll Stew” on the bill makes sense even though it didn’t spring from Capaldi’s pen. For many people, “Rock and Roll Strew” was the first time they heard Capaldi’s voice. By the time “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” was released, Capaldi had lost confidence in his drumming and had turned to singing, giving Traffic two lead vocalists, himself and Winwood. Drummer Jim Gordon and bassist Rick Grech collaborated on “Rock and Roll Stew,” and since neither was a particularly gifted singer, Capaldi stepped in. The original was a mix of rock and reggae that featured Grech’s thumping bass, Gordon’s he-man drumming, Winwood’s dead on guitar and Rebop’s speaker-filling percussion. On this version, the music is nearly as superb. Peter Bonas handles Winwood’s role with aplomb, Wix Wickens provides the funk on electric piano while Jon Lord wails on organ, and Simon Kirke has the stamina to fill Gordon’s sizable role. The vocals, however, are a travesty. Dennis Locorriere’s shaky voice sounds as if he’s just seen Capaldi’s spirit telling him to shut up; Buchanan starts out well, but quickly runs out of breath and gasps out half her lines, and Stevie Lange can’t find a key tossing in, so she tries them all. She couldn’t have failed more if she was actually trying to sing badly. Just listen to the music on this one kids, then go listen to Capaldi belt it out on “Low Spark.”

On the other hand, it’s virtually impossible for Steve Winwood to sing a bad note. Pay close attention to him singing the first verse of “Love Will Keep Us Alive” and compare it to Joe Walsh’s momentum wrecking nasal attempt on the second verse. Winwood thankfully returns for the third verse. Given this was one of Capaldi’s biggest hits (for the Eagles) it’s a credible way to end the show.

If I haven’t been complaining enough already, something needs to be said about the song selection. Virtually all of the Capaldi solo material that was chosen is obscure stuff, some of which, “Evil Love,” “Let Me Make Something In Your Life,” and “Love Will Keep Us Alive,” never even made it onto any of his studio albums. Capaldi’s best known material was on his first three albums, “Oh How We Danced,” “Whale Meat Again,” “Short Cut, Draw Blood,’ as well as two of his 80s efforts, “Fierce Heart” and “One Man Mission.” Only three songs from any of those albums, “Whale Meat Again,” “Gifts Of Unknown Things” and “Lost Inside Your Love” are performed. None from Capaldi’s best known songs on “Oh How We Danced” get the nod, not “Eve,” which launched him as a solo artist, or “Open Your Heart,” the infectious pop/gospel tune that certainly would have been a crowd pleaser. Also missing are Capaldi’s biggest hits, “That’s Love,” and “Living On the Edge” from “Fierce Heart,” and “Love Hurts” (okay there have been so many versions of that hit you can skip it). “Something So Strong,” “Eve,” “It’s All Up To You,” “I’ve Been Changing,” are all songs you hear when you access Jim Capaldi’s website, among others. Somebody should have picked up on that, especially his wife, Aninha, who helped organize the concert and runs the site. Marketing, people, marketing. You want teary ballads, how about “Yellow Sun” from “Whale Meat Again,” “The Game of Love,” “Wild Geese,” or “Some Come Running,” the title track sung by Capaldi with Winwood that sums up their lifelong friendship? “Summer’s Fading,” the percussion happy coda to “Whale Meat Again,” would have been a crowd pleaser, although not having a percussionist equal to Rebop’s talents would have made it a challenge. Talk about selections not making sense… Simon Kirke performed on “Tonight,” and “Hotel Blues” and chose “Whale Meat Again,” the title track from an album he isn’t even on. Although Joe Walsh does a surprisingly nice job, what the heck is he doing singing? Let the man do what he does best – play the guitar, and leave the singing to Steve Winwood. Dennis Locorriere, Stevie Lange and Margo Buchannan should have been turned away at the door. Pete Townsend would have been better off reciting the lyrics to “No Name, No Face, No Number,” then it might have been recognizable, and Paul Weller needed to attend a few more rehearsals. Phil Capaldi, Cat Stevens and Steve Winwood, who actually seemed to know and understand Capaldi’s music, should have been featured more prominently.

The CD comes with a full color booklet with a written introduction to the concert by Aninha Capaldi, a history of Traffic by Pierre Parrone, and memories by Steve Winwood (who lovingly refers to Capaldi as part-gypsy, part-pirate). The booklet includes amusing anecdotes from the performers along with judicious photos of the Mephistophelian Capaldi.

“A Tribute To Jim Capaldi” is a loving gesture by a group of musicians who admired his music. Too bad the vast majority had precious little to do with it. As a HUGE Jim Capaldi fan, (can you tell?) I expected the artists to give better performances, although Gentleman Jim would have undoubtedly appreciated the fly-by the-seat-of-your-pants-feel. It’s listenable, but not vital, and a man with as much talent as Jim Capaldi deserved better, much better.

The DVD

Dear Mr. Fantasy: A Tribute To Jim Capaldi” is also available as a DVD (3 out of 5 stars). It’s a little shocking to see how many of these rock icons have aged. Shaggy Dennis Locorriere looks like he ought to be making Geico caveman commercials, disheveled Stevie Lange resembles the crazy neighborhood alky who keep 1,000 cats in her one bedroom apartment, Ray Cooper looks like Paul Shaffer’s corpse on Slim Fast, Bill Wyman has been visiting Phil Spector’s hairdresser, Gary Moore’s shag hairdo has turned him into Randy “Tex” Cobb’s doppelganger and seems to be acting like a cork in keeping the expanding guitarist from exploding like Mount St. Helen; and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen cue ball Pete Townsend hanging outside of Grand Central with a tin cup pretending to be blind. On the visual plus side, Steve Winwood looks fantastic – he probably has Dorian Grey’s picture in his closet doing his aging for him. The Story’s front man resembles an adolescent Jackson Browne, and knows all the G.Q. rock star moves (head back, eyes closed, look sincere), and Simon Kirke’s buff physique is proof that clean livin’ has its benefits. The DVD reveals one more disturbing attribute the CD doesn’t – most of the performers are reading the lyrics off of a monitor. Joe Walsh tries hard not to make it obvious, but spends most of “Living On the Outside” and “John Barleycorn” staring at the floor – no wonder he could remember all the words! Phil Capaldi is riveted to the monitor, which doesn’t stop him from giving a bravura performance, but staring too long at the tiny screen is in part responsible for Stevie Lange’s bumbling through her material.

The DVD provides a few extras the CD doesn’t, including a behind the scenes rehearsal, which shows the hard work band leader Mark Rivera put into organizing the show. There’s a touching introduction by Capaldi’s wife Aninha, who sadly, also reads part of her speech from the teleprompter – she lived with the man for nearly thirty years and needs cue cards? But it’s the comments the performers make before their performances that enlighten and hit home. A chocked up Steve Winwood remembers the man he called “Seamus” with brotherly love and respect; Yusef Islam harkens back to their mutual love for Brazilian music, and Pete Townsend verifies that Capaldi’s energy helped him get through the Rainbow Concert when they were “Bringing Eric Clapton back from the dead,” but then he gets the year of the concert wrong.

Although there’s a lot of geriatric meat flying around the stage (particularly Locorriere, who appears to be having some sort of a fit), the DVD allows you to see subtleties you won’t be able to discern from the CD. You’ll get close ups of John Lord’s technique on the Hammond that verify that next to Steve Winwood, Lord has the most talented right hands in the biz; watching Gary Moore grimace and grind his way through “Evil Love” is as much fun as listening to it, and Steve Winwood’s spindly legged soloing is a delight. The night was a labor of love, a loose one, but one worth watching. Just don’t gaze at Ray Cooper’s camera hogging antics for too long; they have the same vision impairing effect of staring at the sun for too long.



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