Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die (1970)

AllMusic Review: At only 22 years old, Steve Winwood sat down in early 1970 to fulfill a contractual commitment by making his first solo album, on which he intended to play all the instruments himself. The record got as far as one backing track produced by Guy Stevens, “Stranger to Himself,” before Winwood called his erstwhile partner from Traffic, Jim Capaldi, in to help out. The two completed a second track, “Every Mother’s Son,” then, with Winwood and Island Records chief Chris Blackwell moving to the production chores, brought in a third Traffic member, Chris Wood, to work on the sessions. Thus, Traffic, dead and buried for more than a year, was reborn. The band’s new approach was closer to what it perhaps should have been back in 1967, basically a showcase for Winwood’s voice and instrumental work, with Wood adding reed parts and Capaldi drumming and occasionally singing harmony vocals. If the original Traffic bowed to the perceived commercial necessity of crafting hit singles, the new Traffic was more interested in stretching out. Heretofore, no studio recording had run longer than the five-and-a-half minutes of “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” but four of the six selections on John Barleycorn Must Die exceeded six minutes. Winwood and company used the time to play extended instrumental variations on compelling folk- and jazz-derived riffs. Five of the six songs had lyrics, and their tone of disaffection was typical of earlier Capaldi sentiments. But the vocal sections of the songs merely served as excuses for Winwood to exercise his expressive voice as punctuation to the extended instrumental sections. As such, John Barleycorn Must Die moved beyond the jamming that had characterized some of Traffic’s 1968 work to approach the emerging field of jazz-rock. And that helped the band to achieve its commercial potential; this became Traffic’s first gold album. — William Ruhlmann

Track Listing

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Personnel Length
1. “Glad” Steve Winwood
Personnel:
    • Steve Winwood — organ, piano, bass guitar, percussion
    • Chris Wood — saxophone, electric saxophone, flute, percussion
    • Jim Capaldi — drums, percussion
6:59
2. “Freedom Rider” Winwood, Jim Capaldi
Personnel:
    • Winwood — vocals, organ, piano, percussion
    • Wood — saxophone, electric saxophone, flute, percussion
    • Capaldi — drums, percussion
6:20
3. “Empty Pages” Winwood, Capaldi
Personnel:
    • Winwood — vocals, organ, electric piano, bass guitar
    • Wood — organ
    • Capaldi — drums, percussion
4:47
Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Personnel Length
4. “Stranger to Himself” Winwood, Capaldi
Personnel:
    • Winwood — vocals, all instruments
    • Capaldi — vocals
4:02
5. “John Barleycorn (Must Die)” traditional; arranged by Winwood
Personnel:
    • Winwood — vocals, acoustic guitar, piano
    • Wood — flute, percussion
    • Capaldi — vocals, tambourine
6:20
6. “Every Mother’s Son” Winwood, Capaldi
Personnel:
    • Winwood — vocals, all instruments other than drums
    • Capaldi — drums
7:05
Total length: 35:06

 

Schill Score: 8.5/10

 

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Traffic – Traffic (1968)

AllMusic Review: After dispensing with his services in December 1967, the remaining members of Traffic reinstated Dave Mason in the group in the spring of 1968 as they struggled to write enough material for their impending second album. The result was a disc evenly divided between Mason’s catchy folk-rock compositions and Steve Winwood’s compelling rock jams. Mason’s material was the most appealing both initially and eventually: the lead-off track, a jaunty effort called “You Can All Join In,” became a European hit, and “Feelin’ Alright?” turned out to be the only real standard to emerge from the album after it started earning cover versions from Joe Cocker and others in the 1970s. Winwood’s efforts, with their haunting keyboard-based melodies augmented by Chris Wood’s reed work and Jim Capaldi’s exotic rhythms, work better as musical efforts than lyrical ones. Primary lyricist Capaldi’s words tend to be impressionistic reveries or vague psychological reflections; the most satisfying is the shaggy-dog story “Forty Thousand Headmen,” which doesn’t really make any sense as anything other than a dream. But the lyrics to Winwood/Capaldi compositions take a back seat to the playing and Winwood’s soulful voice. As Mason’s simpler, more direct performances alternate with the more complex Winwood tunes, the album is well-balanced. It’s too bad that the musicians were not able to maintain that balance in person; for the second time in two albums, Mason found himself dismissed from the group just as an LP to which he’d made a major contribution hit the stores. Only a few months after that, the band itself split up, but not before scoring their second consecutive Top Ten ranking in the U.K.; the album also reached the Top 20 in the U.S., breaking the temporarily defunct group stateside. — William Ruhlmann

Track Listing:

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1 “You Can All Join In” Dave Mason 3:34
2 “Pearly Queen” Capaldi, Winwood 4:20
3 “Don’t Be Sad” Mason 3:24
4 “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring” Capaldi, Winwood, Wood 3:11
5 “Feelin’ Alright?” Mason 4:16
Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Length
6 “Vagabond Virgin” Capaldi, Mason 5:21
7 “Forty Thousand Headmen” Capaldi, Winwood 3:15
8 “Cryin’ to Be Heard” Mason 5:14
9 “No Time to Live” Capaldi, Winwood 5:10
10 “Means to an End” Capaldi, Winwood 2:39
Total length: 40:24:00

 

Schill Score: 10/10

 

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