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Traffic - The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys CD (album) cover




Eclectic Prog

4.06 | 313 ratings

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4 stars Fresh off the success of "John Barleycorn Must Die," the album that began as a Steve Winwood solo project but (with the versatile help of Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood) fleshed out into being a bonafide Traffic LP, the band opted to expand their membership for the next studio recording. This would bring in new energy and ideas and eliminate the limitations they encountered by only having three people in the group. With the addition of Rick Grech on bass, Jim Gordon on drums and Reebop Kwaku Baah on congas Traffic was able to be a lot more assertive musically, thus allowing them to venture progressively into uncharted folk/jazz/rock areas that few (if any) bands were exploring in 1971.

The album starts serenely with smooth harmonizing recorders, acoustic guitars and Steve's unmistakable voice singing "Hidden Treasure," a song that invites the listener to slow down the pace, listen to your soul's urging and discover the peace within. The low- key rhythm is perfect for Wood's airy flute and the permeating atmosphere has that charismatic Traffic climate that's as comfortable as an old sofa. What's next just may be their finest achievement ever. "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" slowly fades in as if the group is traveling in a gypsy caravan and they are gradually coming within earshot on the horizon. Drawing closer they fully immerse themselves in the song's half- speed tempo and it hypnotizes your senses. It's one of the most unique grooves in the history of rock and roll. Winwood turns in a vocal for the ages and his piano work is delicate and tasteful throughout. The drums, congas and percussion never drag for a nanosecond and Grech faithfully serves as the rock solid anchor with his unwavering bass pattern, keeping the whole endeavor from losing touch with its essential heartbeat. But to me this is Chris Wood's triumph. His saxophone work, both unadorned and then augmented by a distortion effect, is spellbinding and inspired. Following Winwood's last verse he delivers what I like to think of as "the note" that will define this tune forevermore. It's not so much of an indescribable tone as it is a FORCE that makes your hair stand on end. (Chris died prematurely in 1983 but I have it on good authority that the archangel Gabriel was so impressed by "the note" that he stopped Wood just inside the pearly gates and negotiated the rights to use it on judgement day in lieu of the scheduled blast from a trumpet. True story.)

It's impossible to follow something like that gracefully so "Light Up or Leave Me Alone" comes up next (at least it does on the LP version) and it's not too shabby. An easy- going, R&B-styled rocker, it features Capaldi on vocal and an interesting arrangement. Winwood has never been one of my preferred guitarists (some of his earlier work with this band is downright embarrassing) but on this tune he does a decent job overall. One of the characteristics of Traffic is their propensity to perform the essential ingredients of a song, then jam out on the ending and they do that not only on this song but several times on this album. Grech and Gordon contribute "Rock and Roll Stew," an uptempo tune they co-wrote about life on the road, and it garnered quite a bit of FM airplay at the time with its infectious, funky feel. The gospel-tinged "Many a Mile to Freedom" is next and it's a pleasant enough song but I think that if Steve would have played one of his exemplary Hammond organ solos instead of insisting on plunking out another less-than-memorable guitar ride it would have sent this tune soaring through the ceiling. At least during the ending jam we hear some welcome flute work from Chris. "Rainmaker" is the final song and it's excellent. With its somber, haunting chant of a chorus it tells a simple story of a farmer pleading for rain to nourish his crops and I'm sure everyone can find the human allegory it presents. Wood throws in some pertinent flute and Grech adds a dash of violin before they abruptly change gears and adopt a funky beat to improvise on for the rest of the track. The sax and guitar play around each other and the percussion embellishes the Bohemian mood they create as their gypsy caravan loads up and slowly moves on down the road before eventually fading into the twilight.

"The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" has become such a mainstay of classic rock stations the world over that it's easy to forget how ahead of its time the tune and this album was in the early seventies. There was absolutely nothing remotely like it on the musical landscape (not to mention the innovative art and odd geometric shape of the LP cover) and record buyers flocked to it in droves, eventually driving it up to #7 on the charts. Traffic had succeeded in creating their own niche in the biz and that allowed them to follow their muse wherever she led them. This album may not be a masterpiece but the title cut certainly is and more than enough reason to include it in your prog collection.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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