Daily Archives: September 10, 2009

Blast From The Past: Traffic

Light up or leave them alone

Light up or leave them alone

Having recently been wowed by the latest collaboration between Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, my thoughts naturally travelled back to their catalogue of work over the past forty years. Blind Faith, of course, was among the first bands to earn the moniker supergroup, but they were one and done as far as releases go. Clapton’s work with The Yardbirds is fine, but it’s his work in Cream that shines brightest in hindsight. Around the same time Cream was peaking, the amazing vocals of a sixteen year old Brit knocked me sideways; The Spencer Davis Group’s single Gimme Some Lovin’ is still a jukebox favorite. But when Steve Winwood moved on to form Traffic…ahh, that’s where the magic really happened for me.

Traffic was an apt name for a band that dabbled in so many sonic areas, from folk to blues to psychedelia and jazz, often in the space of the same song, let alone the same album. Before Dave Mason left for the second time, the band juggled his pop sensibilities with the more avant-garde efforts from Winwood and Jim Capaldi; Chris Wood playing the Brian Jones role by dressing up the tracks with inventive instrumentation. Winwood was only eighteen when Traffic was formed (he just turned 61 in May) and the others only a couple of years older. It’s stunning to hear the depth and resonance in their catalogue when you consider their tender ages.

As with most great bands, I recommend you revisit the entire catalogue, as a “best-of” can never really capture the majesty of a long-tenured favorite. Smiling Phases, the out-of-print anthology, contained more cuts (although some argue that even the expanded selection is incomplete) but the audio is inferior to later releases. As single-CD collections go, Feelin’ Alright isn’t a bad one at all.

Here’s the review I wrote for PopMatters several years ago…

Traffic Feelin Alright

The thought of distilling the career of Traffic into a single disc must have been a mind-numbing task. First conceived as a psychedelic English rock group, the band morphed into a soulful blues group, then sailed through a jazz-influenced folk period and dabbled in reggae and American rhythm and blues. Dave Mason was on board for the initial ride, while the latter period drew players like Clapton and the Muscle Shoals studio rhythm section. Each period had its landmark successes, from Dear Mr. Fantasy to John Barleycorn Must Die to Shootout At The Fantasy Factory. In short, how do you boil down a twenty-five year organism to seventy-five minutes?

Well, you can’t, but this collection of “hits” and recognizable album cuts does as good a job as possible. Cutting off after The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys (the full 11:42 track among the inclusions), this disc gathers fifteen songs skewed towards the band’s first two incarnations. The informative liner notes detail how producer Jimmy Miller helped launch the original quartet, inventive and talented players in the right place at the right time. “Paper Sun” and “Heaven Is In Your Mind” find the band in full flowery psych mode, along with Dave Mason’s more single-oriented “Feelin’ Alright” and “You Can All Join In”. Although Mason’s “Hole In My Shoe” is one of the era’s trippiest headphone numbers, leader Steve Winwood sought a denser, more experimental direction for the band, which fellow members Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood also desired. The bluesy “Pearly Queen” and the more daring “Forty Thousand Headmen” found success with audiences as well. Goodbye Dave.

Steve Winwood’s soulful voice is the centerpiece of most of Traffic’s catalogue, and his transitional work with “Shanghai Noodle Factory” set the stage for the trio’s masterpiece, John Barleycorn Must Die. The four tracks included here could be from four separate worlds, yet in context sound seamless (“Glad” remains one of the best rock instrumentals ever recorded). The final two tracks, from Low Spark, feature the first of the expanded lineups the group would use for the remainder of its career. In the studio, each member of the trio played several instruments; with the larger band the complex music they composed could now be recreated on stage.

After Traffic broke up again, Winwood, like Mason (and at a quieter level, Capaldi) enjoyed a successful solo career. Chris Wood died in 1983, but a stripped down incarnation of the band (Winwood, Capaldi and bass player Rosko Gee) reunited in 1994 for Far From Home. While the concept of Traffic now seems to be an open forum for future collaborations, Feelin’ Alright is a solid testament to earlier genius.

(Note: The review was writtem in 2000. With Capaldi’s death in 2005, it’s safe to say that Traffic is now a closed book.)

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