Monday, October 28, 2013

Traffic 4: John Barleycorn Must Die

Steve Winwood is often associated with keyboards, but those who paid enough attention to Traffic and Blind Faith would have heard him on guitar as well. So it wasn’t altogether surprising that after Blind Faith stopped, he would start recording all by himself. (After all, Paul McCartney was doing it around the same time.)
Halfway through the process he decided that the songs needed a little something extra, so he called his old colleagues Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood to add drums and winds. That was all it took to turn John Barleycorn Must Die into a full-fledged Traffic album, less than two years after they’d split. Even without the psychedelia that cloaked their earlier work, it still evokes an aural image of guys playing in a room somewhere, probably in a house.
Side one is a contender for the title of Perfect Album Side. “Glad” lands on the front step with a thud, the piano dancing over its riff for eight bars, then stepping for the sax, coming back eight bars later. And back and forth they go, the sax even finding a wah-wah pedal along the way. The last two minutes are a little exploratory, a harbinger of the future if you will. All the time the song always seems on the verge of having lyrics, but that doesn’t happen until after “Freedom Rider” and its glum saxophone kicks in. The words are beyond our comprehension, but that doesn’t keep you from trying to sing along. A neat little transition quotes from “Glad”, giving way to a dual flute solo that brings to mind a more restrained Jethro Tull. Steve’s piano pounds away over the coda, and it all tumbles down into “Empty Pages”. This happy-sounding song is apparently about writer’s block, disguised as a love song. Or something.
The second side has a lot to live up to. “Stranger To Himself” is Winwood alone, except for a few bars of Capaldi harmony. It shows his able skills at arranging, playing the guitar off the piano, as well as the drums. There’s even a pretty dirty lead guitar all the way through. Then things slow way, way down. “John Barleycorn”, as explained on the cover, is an extended interpretation of an old English folk song about alcohol. Played on a high-capoed acoustic, its verses circle and circle under a flute, to the point where the story gets denser and denser. Finally, “Every Mother’s Son” has just enough Hammond to supply the “majestic” tag. It’s another mostly one-man performance, and our favorite part is when the drums forget to keep playing during the organ solo.
John Barleycorn Must Die arrived right about when English folk was getting an electric renaissance, and fits well alongside other Island artists of the time. But despite those rustic touches, there’s a thick coat of jazz, combining for one excellent rock album. The band was off to a fresh new start.
As with many classic albums, what they put out was what they had, and reissues haven’t brought forth anything forgotten from the sessions. The first (UK-only) upgrade added some live tracks and two brief session outtakes; the Deluxe Edition has neither outtake, and uses different live tracks, filling up the space with alternate mixes. It’s a good argument for preserving the original as it was.

Traffic John Barleycorn Must Die (1970)—

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