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Traffic - John Barleycorn Must Die CD (album) cover

JOHN BARLEYCORN MUST DIE

Traffic

 

Eclectic Prog

3.88 | 221 ratings

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Easy Livin
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
4 stars A fine brew

In 1970, with Traffic appearing to have run their course, Steve Winwood was still contracted to Island records to deliver two further albums. He therefore started work on a solo album, completing two tracks (Every mother's son and Stranger to himself) pretty much single handed before calling for help. Former Traffic band mates Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood (but not Dave Mason) were called up and it was quickly decided that the resulting album would bear the Traffic name. The title was originally to be Mad shadows, but when Chris Blackwell pulled rank and stepped in as producer, Guy Stevens went off to work with Mott the Hoople, taking that title with him.

The album opens with the instrumental Glad, a piece which is unusually credited just to Steve Winwood. Most of the songs here continue to be Winwood/Capaldi collaborations. The track is a loose improvisation which allows each of the trio to demonstrate their dexterity. It is quite a change from the first two albums, which had only occasionally hinted at the band's future jazz direction.

Freedom rider takes the energy and excitement of the early albums and blends them with a more mature structure. The song thus becomes a magnificent jazz/pop/rock number. By now it is quickly becoming apparent that the absence of Dave Mason has freed the remaining trio to explore the direction Winwood had pushed for right from the start. Gone are any notions of pandering to the singles charts, along with the light simplistic songs which adorned each of the previous albums. Gone too are the alternate vocals of Mason, Winwood now singing throughout.

Empty pages continues to evidence the unbounded enthusiasm which has been rekindled, Winwood's organ playing being the dominant sound to back a fine vocal performance. On Stranger to himself, Winwood demonstrates his dexterity with a decent lead guitar solo.

The title track is a magical interpretation of an old folk song which has also been covered by bands such as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. The song's lyrics are based on the production process for beer and whisky, John Barleycorn being the agricultural content simulated in human form. While Winwood and company maintain the folk ethic of the song, they blend with it an ISP/Jethro Tull like feel. Wood's wind instrumental backing is particularly of note here, the song being a delightful acoustic break which would not have sounded out of place on Led Zeppelin III.

"Every mother's son" finds Winwood at his absolute best. His vocals are strong and emotional, book- ending a sublime organ solo. The track is unquestionably the finest piece of prog Traffic ever released, and a long term personal favourite of mine. The song was selected to appear on the iconic Bumpers collection released by Island records, the track being placed in prime position on that album.

The CD remaster has a number of bonus tracks. The brief I just want you to know is interestingly slotted in between tracks 4 and 5 of the original album. Sitting here thinking of my love is another Winwood solo recording, the song having been written by him prior to the return of Capaldi and Wood. After a superfluous behind the scenes recording at a live gig in New York, the final two live tracks are taken from that gig. The introduction does however serve to tell us that by the time this gig took place, Rick Grech was on board. The two songs performed are extended versions of Who knows what tomorrow may bring from the second album, and Glad, the opening track on this album. Both were intended for release on a live album (NOT Welcome to the canteen), and both serve to emphasise the jazz direction the band were embarked upon, especially in the live environment.

For me, this is Traffic's finest album. It finds the band taking their folk rock roots and blending them with an ambitious mix of prog and jazz. Recommended.

Easy Livin | 4/5 |

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