TRAFFIC — The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys

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TRAFFIC - The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys cover
4.50 | 14 ratings | 4 reviews
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Album · 1971

Filed under Jazz Related Rock


A1 Hidden Treasure 4:16
A2 The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys 12:10
A3 Rock 'n' Roll Stew 4:29
B1 Many A Mile To Freedom 7:30
B2 Light Up Or Leave Me Alone 5:00
B3 Rainmaker 7:39

Total Time: 39:46


Bass, Violin – Rik Grech
Drums – Jim Gordon
Percussion – Reebop Kwaku Baah
Saxophone, Flute – Chris Wood
Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Organ – Steve Winwood
Vocals, Percussion – Jim Capaldi

About this release

Island Records ‎– ILPS 9180 (UK)

Recorded in 1971 at Island Studios, London

Thanks to snobb for the updates


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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 modern music. 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 jazz/rock collection.

Members reviews

Traffic's 1971 release of the oddly named The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys gives off an air of great stylistic qualities, and has deservingly been noted as the band's greatest achievement. Unlike Gentle Giant, another well known band of the eclectic progressive genre, Traffic's music tends to slow-dance over the line of folk rock, jazz, and of course eclectic rock. ,Low Spark b has many odd structures, which become very prominent as the album progresses. I found myself loving the album despite its thorough lack of tracks. Medieval sounding bard music slips in (much like Gentle Giant did) quite often. In the opening track 'Hidden Treasure', with soothing sounds that bring you sights of far off places and a subtle air of adventure. Although I found the track to be the only one I can't particularly listen to over again, mostly due to being so bland in light of the rest of its brethren. However, the track's slow tell-tale lyrics and minor progression is simply a lead into the eleven minute eponymous piece that is described as the center of the entire album. 'The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys' is a track that seems much shorter than it actually is, mostly due to it's enjoyable yet sometimes repetitive nature. But smooth jazz it is so I won't delve too deep into it.

One small, mostly unnoticeable problem I had with Low Spark was the seemingly indecisive way Traffic chose the structure of the tracks. With every song there is a different listen, aside from a small similarity between the title track's climax and the straight up rocker of 'Rock & Roll Stew', but even then the latter being much more aggressive takes away any prior similarities that you'd hear while scrolling through the tracks. In my opinion, a variegated line up of tracks qualifies as an album that never gives you a dull moment.

On the point of the rockier tracks, the most distinguished being 'Rock & Roll Stew' and 'Light Up Or Leave Me Alone'. Having never been a fan of soft rock pretending to be greater than it is, the former of the two I've found to enjoy much more often. 'Light Up', especially during the later parts however does bring to the table alot of Who-like rocking, but because of this seems like a song stuck in the 60's. Enjoyable, yes of course, but not something I come back to very often. 'Rock & Roll Stew', living up to it's name, brings a great deal of mixed rock soup including some excellent funk. Combine that with the great vocals from Winwood and you have quite the delicious stew!

The slower tracks that the album retains are 'Many a Mile to Freedom' and 'Rainmaker'. The former sort of takes elements from the rest of the album, combining 'Hidden Treasure'-like softness and the subtle yet quietened rocking of 'Rock & Roll Stew'. This makes up for quite an adventure, especially one that I can sit through for seven and a half minutes and not complain about. 'Rainmaker' is perhaps my favorite song off of the album, being the one that first appealed to me while scrolling through the tracks. It bears a haunting melody and lyrics of a farmer reminiscing of his crops' unfortunate fate from drought. The theme of the song most likely derives to the tale of John Barleycorn told in the prior album, but I feel like this song takes the cake for most complex and best-sounding.

In an overall sense, The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys is an album that goes very under appreciated in the world of the general music population, and unjustly so. If you haven't thoroughly heard or never heard this album at all, then I think you should find the vinyl and give it a spin. It is quite enjoyable. 4/5 rounded to 5.
Now, this is a true masterpiece of TRAFFIC, a follow-up to the highly acclaimed "John Barleycorn Must Die". The 6-piece band, now for the first time with a full-time bassist, and additional two percussionists, sounds almost like SANTANA orchestra (which is great!) with many polyphonic arrangements and full "progressiveness" and "fusion".

The title track alone is a monumental musical impression, like coming from outer space and eternity with wonderful jazzy playing, beautiful Winwood's singing and ethereal and spacey keyboard solo. It makes you wish to play it over and over again or to tape-loop it so as to stick the fade-out with the fade-in into a perpetual experience. The album starts and ends with two wonderful acoustic folksy songs with flutes that seriously question the "uniqueness" of Ian Anderson's playing. All in between is a perfect combination of rock, blues, jazz and soul in such a fine way that perhaps only the later STEELY DAN albums could match. The surrealist "cubicle" cover sleeve is a perfect companion to this perfect record.
Sean Trane
Hardly ever has there been such a beautiful Love and Peace-Hippy start to an album with spine-tingling vocals such as Hidden Treasure. Most of side 1 is taken up by the 12 min+ stunning title-track, slow in developing (some critics have suggested because low on idea but the atmosphere is the idea) and climaxing only to restart by the same piano notes - delightful.

Side 2 starts off with a rocker, but soon peaks after Freedom to end on another high-note with the slow but ambiance-full Rainmaker. Too bad for the short throw away rocker (and inspiration-low) Light Up or Leave Me Alone but representing the rebel side of hippydom.

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