John Barleycorn Must Die - Deluxe Edition
5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Traffic's classic fourth album, John Barleycorn Must Die
, has been given the Legacy Edition treatment - it's been remastered and expanded to 2CDs with alternate takes and live tracks.
The first disc restores John Barleycorn to its original 6-track running order. The second disc, compiled by surviving group member Steve Winwood, contains alternate mixes of "Stranger to Himself" and "Every Mother's Son," as well as the group's first attempt at "John Barleycorn Must Die." The real treat for fans is the addition of seven tracks recorded live at the Fillmore East on November 18 and 19 in 1970.
Traffic Jams...Then Crashes
One of the 60s and 70s most daring, innovative and eclectic bands, Traffic centered around multi instrumentalists Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood. Winwood, the most famous member or the group, had become a celebrity as a fifteen-year old fronting the Spencer Davis Group, who'd scored hits with the organ-rich "Gimme Some Lovin'," the bass-thumping "Keep on Running" and the party-out-of bounds "I'm a Man" (with future Traffic members Chris Wood and Dave Mason singing in the background).
Frustrated by the group's focus on singles and R & B, Winwood spent his off hours jamming with Capaldi, Wood and Davis roadie turned guitarist Dave Mason at club's like the Elbow Room in London.
Quick-quipping, dapper, devilish drummer/singer Jim Capaldi had made his mark as front man for rockers The Hellions and psychedelic darlings Deep Feeling (which featured future Spooky Tooth guitarist Luther Grosvenor and future Family percussionist/flutist Poli Palmer).
Self-taught on sax and flute, former artist Chris Wood had been a member of Locomotive along with future Spooky Tooth drummer Mike Kellie. Although he wasn't a writer, Capaldi and Winwood credited Wood with providing the sonic atmosphere that Capaldi dubbed "40,000 headmen music."
Traffic's 1967 debut, Mr. Fantasy (4 out of 5 stars) (originally released in the U.S. as Heaven is in Your Mind) was a product of the day, sprinkled with sitars, energetic jams and quirky sound effects. Winwood, Capaldi and Wood were non-plussed when Mason's acid rock nursery rhyme "Hole in my Shoe" was selected as the group's second single. (Winwood/Capaldi's "Paper Sun" was the first, reaching #5 in the U.K.)
Despite reaching #2 on the English pop charts, the selection of "Hole in My Shoe" deepened a riff between Mason and the others. Mason brought finished songs to the group, using them as back up musicians. Winwood, Capaldi and Wood preferred to create their material from jams, with Capaldi writing the lyrics.
By the time Traffic was ready to tour the U.S., Mason was out. Some of his songs were cut from the American release and the group was picture as a trio.
The trio only had enough material for half an album when they began recording their self-titled second disk, so a mellowed Mason was invited back. Released in October 1968, Traffic (5 out of 5 stars) contained the classic Winwood/Capaldi collaborations "40,000 Headmen," "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring?" and "Pearly Queen," as well as Mason's penultimate composition, "Feelin' Alright." But the passive power struggle between Winwood and Mason doomed the group. Mason was out of the group by the time the album was released and Winwood quit after the follow-up tour. The group's posthumous third album, Last Exit (3 ½ out of 5 stars) was a collection of live tracks and A and B sides.
By 1970, Steve Winwood's career in music was uncertain. Traffic was at a standstill. Capaldi and Wood had joined forces with Mason and keyboard player Mick Weaver to form Wynder K. Frog, which disbanded after a few live gigs. Winwood formed Blind Faith, one of rock's first supergroups, with Ginger Baker, Rick Grech and Eric Clapton. But Clapton unwillingness to deal with the flood of publicity and hype and Baker's taste for heroin finished Blind Faith after one album.
Winwood's stay in Ginger Baker's Air Force amounted to a handful of gigs and an overindulgent live album critics dubbed "Airfarce." Wary of working in another group, Winwood teamed up with quirky producer Guy Stevens and began working on his first solo record, the aptly titled Mad Shadows. It morphed into one of Traffic's most popular albums.
Among the songs Winwood recorded with Stevens were "Stranger to Himself" and a version of Bob Dylan's "Visions of Johanna." When Stevens suggested Winwood take a stab at Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire," he knew he was heading in the wrong direction. Eager to work with like minded musicians, Winwood began playing with Capaldi who provided the lyrics to his embryonic ideas and played the drums.
The nucleus of the band reunited when Chris Wood returned to England after touring with Dr. John, joining Winwood and Capaldi in the studio. Wood brought along a traditional song recorded by the Watersons, an English folk group. Winwood and Capaldi were so taken by the song's ethereal appeal that it became the title track of Traffic's fourth album.
Based on an olde English melody picked by Winwood on acoustic guitar, the quiet "Barleycorn" draws the bulk of its gentle appeal from Wood's darting, breezy flute solos and Winwood and Capaldi's understated harmonizing that tells a tale of mankind's battle against alcohol.
The rest of John Barleycorn Must Die is an alchemy of rock, jazz and folk. Winwood wrote the music, Capaldi provided the lyrics and Wood returned to his role as being the glue holding Traffic's sound together.
The opening track, "Glad," is credited to Winwood, but validates Wood's role as a creative soloist. With the aid of Winwood's dexterous piano intros and Capaldi's steady drumming, Wood's bouncy electric sax propels the happy-go-lucky jam.
Wood's squatty sax quickly leads the charge into "Freedom Rider," a frantic song about rebellion. Winwood's intense vocal gives Capaldi's imagery a desperate edge: "Like a hurricane inside your heart, when earth and sky are torn apart. He comes gathering up the bits, while hoping that the puzzle fits. Freedom Rider." Wood breaks out a double-tracked flute solo at the song's midpoint that soars and scatters like a frightened bird, then returns to holding down the verses with his film noire sax solos.
The trio barely takes a breath before launching into "Empty Pages," a Traffic classic that's one of their funkiest tunes. Capaldi lays down a Stax-styled backbeat that compliments Winwood's fat bass line. Winwood's electric piano playing and his lung-stretching vocal recall his R & B days with the Spencer Davis Group when he was dubbed "the white Ray Charles." A pleasant surprise is the way Wood cocoons the melody with sweeping chords on Hammond organ.
"Stranger to Himself" is a one-man show for Winwood, who plays all the instruments, including drums. Capaldi, an accomplished singer in his own right, sings back up. Winwood introduces each verse with a crisp acoustic riff. His biting, fuzz-toned electric solos serve notice that one rock's most renowned keyboard players can also excel on the axe.
Capaldi and Winwood recorded "Every Mother's Son" while Wood was still with Dr. John. A mixture of soul and rock, the song's highpoint is Winwood's elongated, sweeping, gospel-inspired Hammond solo. Capaldi nails down the rhythm like a pile-driving steelworker.
Disc two of the Legacy Edition captures Traffic live at the Fillmore East, with Winwood, Capaldi and Wood joined by ex-Family/Blind Faith member Rick Grech who alternates between guitar and bass. The songs were originally intended for an album entitled "Live at the Anderson Theater." The album's release was suspended when drummer Jim Gordon and percussionist Anthony "Reebop" Kwaku Baah joined the band, expanding and completely altering their sound, thus making the "Anderson Theater" album obsolete. (Another live album, Welcome to the Canteen with Gordon, Grech and Dave Mason, returning for a third and last time, was released in 1971 to take its place.)
The Fillmore set is Traffic with all their lovable warts, including Wood's occasional barking seal sax solos and Winwood muffing a lyric or two. "Medicated Goo" has the slow groove of the studio original with Wood busting out a funky accompaniment on sax.
Winwood turns out a soulful electric piano solo for "Empty Pages." His solo turns in "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring?" and "Every Mother's Son" show why he's considered a master of the Hammond organ. "40,000 Headmen" is Traffic perfection with Wood warbling wonderfully on flute and Winwood's mysterious vocal. "Glad/Freedom Rider" runs ten minutes and is highlighted by Wood's lung-busting sax solos.
Ironically as the group began touring behind John Barleycorn Must Die and then expanded its ranks to include Grech, Gordon and Baah, Wood feel victim to alcoholism. He'd begun drinking heavily in order to combat his fear of flying and occasionally didn't leave himself enough time to sober up before performing. He passed away in 1983 at 39 from pneumonia due to complications from alcoholism. Capaldi died of stomach cancer in 2005 at age 60, leaving Winwood the remaining core member. (Mason still records and tours but he was never considered a full-fledged member by the others. Reebop Kwaku Baah actually appears on more Traffic albums than Mason.)
Forty years after its release, John Barleycorn Must Die remains a must have for any fan of rock, jazz, folk or R & B. And the best was yet to come. Now a six-man powerhouse, Traffic's nest album, 1971's The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys would be their crowing achievement.