Caught in Traffic

I’ve recently been listening to the 2-disc Traffic compilation Gold, which came out in 2005. Despite the generic title, it’s a valuable anthology for me, since it has all of my favorite tracks. I’ve never been a rabid fan – their style is so undemanding, I don’t know how anyone could be – but they’ve always been around on somebody’s record shelf, ever since I was a kid, and they made a lot of likeable music. For those who don’t know them, Traffic was an English group consisting of Steve Winwood (keys, guitars, vocals, etc), Jim Capaldi (drums, vocals), Chris Wood (reeds), and Dave Mason (guitar and vocals), with the latter departing after the first couple of albums. Their early vision, appropriate for the 1960s, was a blend of worldly-psychedelic-progressive-folk-soul-pop, and as the ‘70s dawned, they became more of a jazz-inflected jam band.

My golden favorites:

“Heaven is in Your Mind”: Catchy verses and a piano-waltz chorus. Maybe the title is an ironic comment on “expanded consciousness”? I don’t know; the hippie culture is out of my jurisdiction.

“Smiling Phases”: Motown visits British pop, or vice versa. Sturdier than their forays into cheap psychedelia (“Hole in My Shoe”, et al), and the chorus sticks in your head.

“Pearly Queen”: After a tender prelude, this song jumps into blues-riff verses and two Hendrixian breaks, followed by an exotic homestretch. It’s well designed for live performance.

“Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring”: Steve Winwood is not only one of the finest, funkiest organists in rock, his voice has an edge that sounds like it was born on the other side of the Atlantic. This playful song displays both qualities.

“Forty Thousand Headmen”: Percussion and flute add to the ambience of this acoustic tale. A campfire jam for progressive ears – ambling, rambling, roaming in the gloaming.

“Medicated Goo”: This celebratory anthem mixes guitar and piano, funky bass, sax riffs, percussion, and more, all pumping to the same steady beat. The lyric involves several characters enjoying a special elixir, or something. Winwood’s voice and the joy of the music sell it.

“Glad”: Here begin selections from John Barleycorn Must Die (1970), Traffic’s best album overall, and the one where they became a Mason-free trio. “Glad” is an upbeat instrumental featuring a neat piano lick and a cool turnaround. Chris Wood takes a sax solo over a cruising groove, and the final part is more ruminative. Wood is sort of a lethargic player; he hasn’t half the chops of an average jazzer, but his phrasing can be nice sometimes.

“Freedom Rider”: This charging rock piece includes some unusual chord changes and good flute work from Wood. The sound of the John Barleycorn record is a bit ratty. I can imagine someone in the studio saying, “Let’s baffle these mikes and you can adjust the levels at the board,” to which the engineer responded, “Let’s what the mikes and what the whats at the what?”

“Empty Pages”: Soulful rock groove with good keyboards and vocal hooks.

“John Barleycorn”: Given my contempt for folk, it’s strange that I find this dour acoustic song so captivating. Perhaps it’s the “old legend” lyric – in fact, the whole thing is a borrowed artifact. Winwood plays the guitar and Capaldi joins in on harmony vocal; Wood adds flute.

“Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”: The centerpiece from the album of the same name. I suppose this is my desert island Traffic jam. The slow piano vamp and majestic chorus draw you in, while the solos meander in a jazzy haze. The lyric, unlike some of Capaldi’s others, is actually decent. If you listen very closely, you can hear some of the original vocal track bleed through during the verses. I love the instrumental finale, where Winwood plays a fuzzed organ part over the chorus sequence.

“Rainmaker”: A slow, electro-folk number with a chant-like vocal. Wood on flute again, Winwood on guitar, and a violin solo from Rick Grech, who also plays bass on the Low Spark album. Rather dreary, yet perked up by a jam segment at the end (though Winwood should have tuned up beforehand).

“Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory”: The straightforward drive and distorted guitar are uncharacteristic of Traffic, who are usually more partial to drifting along rather than racing somewhere. Cool percussion from Reebop Kwaku Baah.

“Dream Gerrard”: A warped offspring of “Glad” and “Low Spark”. Weirdo lyrics and a stalking bassline get wrapped in Mellotron and wander into the wee hours. Unique, if not marvelous. From the 1974 album When the Eagle Flies, which isn’t the dud it’s sometimes made out to be.

There are 16 more tracks on Gold, including the Anglo-raga “Paper Sun” (their first single), the jam-band hymn “Dear Mr. Fantasy”, the Mason classic “Feelin’ Alright”, the near-prog “Shanghai Noodle Factory”, and the percussive live version of “Gimme Some Lovin’” from Welcome to the Canteen. I’ve owned all of the original albums before, and none of them are without sleepy filler, except maybe John Barleycorn. So a compilation like this is a good place to hear Traffic’s most vibrant moments.

In 1994, Winwood and Capaldi revived the group name and made an album called Far From Home. It was dedicated to Chris Wood, who passed away in the 1980s. The album sounds more like Winwood’s solo efforts than old Traffic, even with the English R&B throwbacks and the sampled sax and flute. The two best cuts are the trudging rocker “Here Comes a Man” and the groovy instrumental “Mozambique”. The best thing about the reunion was that it put Traffic back on the road. The concert I saw was quite enjoyable. They rolled out connoisseur faves like “Pearly Queen”, “Rainmaker”, “Empty Pages”, and several popular classics, all of which sounded better than ever. “Mozambique” rocked the house. I’d always admired Winwood as the perennial rock wunderkind, and seeing him live took that up a notch. In addition to the expected brilliance on keyboards, he’d become a helluva guitar player, too.

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