TRAFFIC — John Barleycorn Must Die (review)

TRAFFIC — John Barleycorn Must Die album cover Album · 1970 · Jazz Related Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
As you must know, jazz is more than just weird chords and wild horns or flights of improvisaton and extraordinary musical concepts. It's an attitude more than anything else no matter what the subject matter or instruments being employed. Traffic personified that attitude as well as any other group and never more so than on this album. Here they fully captured the reborn spirit of a generation that was graduating from the revolutionary, tumultuous decade of the sixties. And in the early years of the seventies there was hardly anyone between the ages of 17 and 27 that didn't have this LP in their collection. Picture this. It's a warm summer Saturday and the sun is shining brightly. You and your best girl round up five or six of your friends and together you leisurely stroll to the riverside park for a picnic, some Frisbee tossing with the dogs, a lot of lazy conversation and cheap wine. Later on, just as the temperature starts to climb some big, fluffy white clouds obscure the sun from time to time and a welcome breeze begins to blow. You think to yourself that you're happy to be alive. "Glad," indeed. That scenario is what the first song on this album feels like. The infectious optimism of Steve Winwood's indelible piano melody, the perfectly-in-the-pocket sax and flute work of Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi's carefree drums and percussion make this song ascend into the surreal. It's not fancy but it's ideal. From there they segue effortlessly into the simple but memorable introduction to "Freedom Rider." Steve's smooth, emotional vocal and Chris' inspired flute are the highlights of the tune as it strides steadily towards its spirited ending. "Empty Pages" is next and it completes the trifecta. The regal opening chorus chords lead you into the finest melody on the album, powered by a delicious groove laid down by Capaldi. There's not even a whisper from the sax or flute here because Winwood's playful electric piano ride renders them unnecessary. The song is an absolute gem. It's been well documented that all this began as a solo project for Steve before he bowed to the inevitable and brought Chris and Jim back into the fold. "Stranger to Himself" sounds like it's one of the songs Winwood completed before they arrived. He admirably plays all the instruments (including drums) on it but it lacks the magical and cohesive aura that the previous tunes possess so abundantly. Steve's no slouch on acoustic but his electric guitar playing ability has always been suspect to my ears. It's not a bad song at all but it could have been better. I think if Wood had been asked to replace the twanging, amateurish guitar solo with one conjured out of his saxophone it would have kept it from impeding the overall flow of the album. "John Barleycorn," an adaptation of a fifteenth century prohibition folk tune, is another example of the group creating an indescribable ambience that is timeless. Winwood's acoustic never flags for a moment and Chris' flute dances around the vocal like a spry leprechaun. Jim adds just the right percussion throughout without ever touching a drum and when Steve slyly introduces the piano towards the end the song approaches sublimity. It's almost impossible to follow something that good but "Every Mother's Son" does a decent job of it. It's kinda R&B and sorta gospel-ish in its own Traffic way and distinguishes itself from the other tunes with a guitar-through-the-Leslie-speakers effect. Other than drums Winwood played everything again (including the needless fuzzy electric guitar) but this time it works much better, especially the extended Hammond organ lead performed over an accompanying piano.

"John Barleycorn Must Die" was the band's first gold record and reached as high as #5 on the album charts without the benefit of even one hit single. If you were to assemble a documentary about the lifestyle of young adults circa 1970 you would have to use a song or two from this album or you would fail to grasp the essence of the era. While rock music was getting busier and more complicated by the day Traffic defied that trend and found the very soul of the times with their modest, unadorned yet jazzy approach.

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