|The cover of John Barleycorn Must Die by Traffic, released July 1970|
Traffic had formed in 1967, after Steve Winwood had left the Spencer Davis Group. The Spencer Davis were one of England's best and most successful R&B bands, as hits like "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "Keep On Running" will attest today, as they are still regulars in the oldie playlist. The then-teenage Winwood (born 1948) not only was the lead singer for the Davis group, he also played lead guitar, organ and piano. After a string of great hits, the ever-talented Winwood wanted more, so he left the Spencer Davis Group to "do his own thing." His own thing was Traffic.
Traffic had four members: Winwood, two guys from a Lancashire group called Deep Feeling, drummer Jim Capaldi and guitarist Dave Mason, and Chris Wood on woodwinds. Traffic's great innovation was to take a lesson from Sgt. Pepper's, and not to have a fixed configuration of instruments. Up until Traffic, every band had a certain lineup, usually based on their live configuration--say two guitars, piano, bass and drums, for example--and just about every song on an album was built on that framework. Traffic, however, already had the famous Winwood when they formed, and spent a month in a cottage in the Berkshires "getting it together" (thus starting another trend) and they were a successful recording act before they ever performed.
Traffic's specific magic was that the members played whatever instruments were appropriate for the track, so every track on their first two albums sounded different. Winwood played organ like Jimmy Smith, piano like Horace Silver, acoustic guitar like an English folkie and electric guitar like a jazzed up Chicago bluesman. He could yell the blues like Ray Charles or croon like Van Morrison, as needed. Did I mention Winwood also played bass? Mason had a completely different lead guitar style than Winwood, and also played bass and some rudimentary sitar, Mason and Capaldi were both good singers and Chris Wood played a variety of woodwinds, and thus every track sounded different. Traffic's first hit was "Paper Sun," a sort of Syd Barrett-like pop tune sung by Mason, but the most popular track of their debut album was a double guitar jamfest called "Dear Mr Fantasy."
Dave Mason had a strange relationship with his band mates, leaving Traffic right before the album was released (called Mr Fantasy in the US), so he was left off the cover, to the confusion of American fans. Mason had rejoined for the second album, entitled Traffic, but then departed again. The second album, released in October 1968. was an even better album than the first, and as FM radio spread across America, Traffic was a staple of every station's playlist. Traffic had a very successful American tour in 1968 without benefit of a hit.
However, due to Traffic's approach to recording, they were a very different band in person. Mostly Mason didn't tour with them, so they were just a trio, leaving them with some tricky work to replicate their amazing recordings, which all depended on overdubs. On stage in 1968, Winwood typically played organ while managing the bass with his feet (using the organ pedals), Capaldi played drums and Wood played flute and sax. Wood would switch to organ or electric bass for those songs where Winwood needed to play electric guitar. Traffic actually sounded pretty good live, but their trio sound was in distinct contrast to their delicate studio constructions.
Mysteriously, with just two great albums under their belt, Traffic broke at the beginning of 1969. Winwood went on to form Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, and Wood, Capaldi and Mason went on to other endeavors, including forming a group together (with organist Mick Weaver). Rock fans were left with two fantastic albums and what-might-have-been. The record company cobbled together a final album, Last Exit (May '69)with a few leftover studio tracks and some live material from the Fillmore East. Traffic seemed like another great lost sixties group.
Blind Faith was the most popular live group of 1969, but they did not survive the year. Winwood made a few appearances with an interesting group called Ginger Baker's Air Force, but although he was more famous than ever, he was left group-less. Like every other musician whose band had disintegrated, Winwood decided to make a solo album. While working on the record, tentatively titled Mad Shadows, however, Winwood ran into a roadblock. The profoundly talented Winwood did not need additional musicians to help him record, since he could play every instrument better than most professionals. He did need collaborators, however. First he called back Capaldi to help with songwriting, and then they called on Chris Wood for a little woodwind coloring, and suddenly Traffic was back together again.
The July 1970 release of John Barleycorn Must Die was remarkable for any number of reasons. First of all, in the wake of the 1960s, the idea that a group could break up and get back together again was more or less unprecedented. More importantly, John Barleycorn was arguably better than the two fine albums that came before, so all seemed right with the world. The reviewer in Rolling Stone specifically mentioned that if Buffalo Springfield would get back together, then everything would be great. It went unstated that if Traffic could find a way to work together, maybe the Beatles could as well.
FM radio absolutely loved John Barleycorn, so Traffic was very well received on their Summer tour in 1970. However, it was harder than ever for the trio of Winwood, Wood and Capaldi to make Traffic's delicate songs work on stage. The album was doing great, though, and the record companies had figured out that if English bands wanted to make it big in America they had to tour non-stop, so Traffic came back in the Fall. This time, however, Traffic added a fourth member, bassist Rick Gretch.
Rick Grech had been in a Lancashire band called Family, whose 1968 debut album (Music In A Doll's House) had been produced by Dave Mason. More importantly, when Winwood, Clapton and Ginger Baker had formed Blind Faith, they tapped Grech to play bass, leaving Family in a difficult situation (Family drafted ex-Animals bassist John Weider). Blind Faith had collapsed in August 1969, after their only American tour, but Winwood and Grech had stayed close. With Grech on bass for Traffic, suddenly Wood and Winwood could concentrate on their main instruments, and Traffic was a very viable live proposition. After a brief English tour, the new-look Traffic found themselves headlining the Fillmore East in November of 1970.
The Fillmore East
The Fillmore East, and 2nd Avenue and 6th Street in the East Village, had been rock music's showcase theater from the day it opened on March 8, 1968. Whereas Bill Graham's Fillmore West followed the West Coast tradition of a total performing environment, with no seats on the main floor to facilitate a consciousness meld between the audience and the musicians, the Fillmore East was conceived by Graham to be a theater, first and foremost. The aging venue (opened as a Yiddish Theater in 1926) had been completely refurbished by Graham in to a place that hitherto would have been "too nice" for a rock show. All the seats were reserved, and instead of two-set shows like Fillmore West, there were always early and late shows.
Bands playing the Fillmore East knew they were performing, and performing in America's premier city for arts of all kinds. The place was nice, the sound system was state-of-the-art and audiences were enthusiastic about expressing their likes and dislikes of each performer. The Fillmore East was a crucial stop for any English band trying to make it America. The important people in the music industry and rock press attended shows at Fillmore East, usually the first show on Friday night. A killer set could get an unknown band a great write-up in Billboard and Rolling Stone, and attention would follow them all over the country. In contrast, a lukewarm writeup of a veteran act could signal that maybe their time had come and gone. A band who could knock 'em dead at some college gym in Ohio was all well and good, but winning New York meant killing the crowd at Fillmore East, and every English band knew that.
Traffic, Fillmore East, November 18, 1970
Almost all Fillmore East dates were a booking for Friday and Saturday night, with double shows (8:30 and 11:30 each night). A few larger bands, like Crosby Stills Nash and Young, might play Thursday through Sunday. Weekday shows were fairly rare. However, Traffic were booked for Tuesday and Wednesday night, November 18 and 19, 1970. Opening acts were Cat Stevens and Hammer. The fact that Traffic was booked at all on a weeknight was a clear sign that this was a special event that would bring out the jaded New Yorkers. Traffic had killed everybody the previous Summer, however, and although they didn't sell a lot of records, Traffic was beloved of writers and were considered a serious band by everyone who worried about such things.
According to legend, Traffic was planning a live album, and thus recorded the Fillmore East shows. I'm not entirely convinced of that. The Fillmore East sound crew had a penchant for secretly recording shows for their own listening pleasure--god bless 'em--but that was not really acceptable in the 1960s, so they had reason to be quiet about it. The only reason we really know about the Fillmore East sound crew's activities on the side was because they recorded some Grateful Dead shows, and the Deadhead taping community found out about it some years later. By the time the word leaked out about it, the Fillmore East was long closed, so it's unclear exactly what the crew might and might not have taped. It is true, however, that if they made a tape, they couldn't really admit it, so I don't know if the record company recorded this show, or John Chester and the Fillmore East crew. It sounds great, of course, but so did the tapes that the Fillmore East boys made of the Dead (in February 1970), so I'm uncertain.
There's also a confusing history to the tape, linked to the fact that the Grateful Dead's loyal fans were the first to really have a large group of people unknown to each other starting to collect tapes. For reasons that are too byzantine to explain, the Traffic tape circulated with the date of November 23, 1970, and was identified as Traffic at the Anderson Theater, opening for the Dead. To make a long story short, the Dead did play Anderson Theater (in NYC) that day, but Traffic did not. Further research eventually revealed the Traffic tape to have been from November 18, but no one has said whether it was from the early or late show. It's only a little over an hour, so it may just be the early show.
Whatever the story of the tape itself, for a Traffic fan it's an amazing show. Here's the setlist:
01. Introduction by Bill GrahamWhat's striking about the November '70 tape is how it represents a version of Traffic that had been lost to history. John Barleycorn Must Die was released in July 1970, and it was indeed followed by a live album recorded in 1971, Welcome To The Canteen. While I loved Canteen (released September '71) it was a different Traffic entirely: Jim Gordon took over from Capaldi on drums, while Capaldi stuck around as a singer and percussionist, Rebop Kwaku Baah was added on congas, and unexpectedly Dave Mason returned to sing and play guitar. The Canteen album, recorded in July of 1971, has more of a superjam feel, with rambling solos and a rumble of percussion. It was followed by the crisp and brilliant The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys just a few months later (November '71), with Mason departed but Winwood and Capaldi at their peak as songwriters.
02. Medicated Goo
03. Pearly Queen
04. Empty Pages
05. Heaven Is In Your Mind
06. Forty Thousand Headmen
07. John Barleycorn Must Die
08. Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring
09. Every Mother's Son
10. Glad/>Freedom Rider
11. Means To The End
12. Dear Mr. Fantasy
The quartet Traffic was something else entirely. With just 4 members, the songs are crisp and well-rehearsed. Yet with the solid Grech anchoring the beat with Capaldi, Winwood and Wood are free to cover the front line without worrying about playing bass, so their playing is much freer than it was in earlier years. Yet a four-piece is still not a large band, so whether Winwood is playing acoustic or electric guitar, electric piano or Hammond organ, he really has to fill a lot of space, and he is just a glorious player. Later versions of Traffic had numerous members, freeing Winwood just to be the group leader instead of having to stretch out, but frankly it's more fun to hear him stretch out. Traffic released so little material during the life of the band that it's a revelation to hear their best material reconfigured for a four piece band.
|Traffic's classic album The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys, released November 1971|
Traffic stayed together through 1974, with several more albums and a variety of personnel changes. Winwood went on to well deserved solo stardom in the 1980s, and he is correctly ensconced as rock royalty, periodically touring with Eric Clapton so that Blind Faith's promise can finally be fulfilled as well. Traffic even reformed in 1994, and for those lucky enough to see them--I was--it was fabulous to hear all that great material performed live. The accompanying album was far cry from Traffic's heyday, however, and Winwood returned to his solo career. A few songs from the November 18, 1970 concert were actually released as bonus tracks on the re-released John Barleycorn cd in 199.
To me, and to many others, 1971's Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys was Traffic's high water mark. Looking at the back cover, with the six musicians in their 70s gear, skinny and with long hair, can be kind of melancholy, since all but Winwood aren't with us (well, Jim Gordon is alive, but in a psychiatric facility under sad circumstances). Everything ends, however, and as far as rock goes it's always better to think about bands when they were on top of the world. November 18, 1970, was one of those nights, when the long-lost 4-piece Traffic was as good as it got.