Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Traffic

Traffic: (left to right) Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood, Steve Winwood (bottom) Dave Mason (ca. 1968)

It's been a while since I've done a band profile, so I thought it was time to write on about one of my favorite bands of the late 1960s/early 1970s: Traffic. Known mainly as the band that brought Steve Winwood to prominence, Traffic were one of the best and most influential bands to emerge in the latter half of the 1960s. Blending British psychedelic rock with folk, jazz, R&B, and blues music, the first half of their career from 1967-1969 saw them release three excellent albums and several hit singles with their original line-up. After a short break-up, they regrouped in 1970 to embark on the second phase of their career which saw them evolve into a jazzier, free-form style, going through several line-up changes until a final split in 1974. What they left behind was a legacy of great music that influenced many of their contemporaries, as well as future musicians.



Traffic formed in 1967, emerging from the Birmingham rock scene. Steve Winwood (guitar, bass, piano, organ, keyboards, vocals) was the eighteen year old prodigy who had fronted the Spencer Davis Group (whose hits included "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm a Man"). Through sessions at The Elbow Room in Birmingham, he jammed with Jim Capaldi (drums, vocals), Chris Wood (flute, saxophone, keyboards), and Dave Mason (guitar, sitar, vocals). They decided to form a band, named it Traffic, and were signed by Island Records. Decamping to a Berkshire cottage for several weeks, they wrote the songs that would become their debut singles "Paper Sun" and "Hole in My Shoe." Both were hits in the UK and were a harbinger of things to come in terms of their composition: Winwood and Capaldi (and often, Wood) wrote together and developed the songs in a band setting, while Mason wrote alone and presented finished songs to the others, dictating how he wanted them to play. Additionally, Mason was fond of more traditional British pop song structures, while the other three tended to be more experimental and drew from wider influences. The blend worked musically, although the personality clashes between Mason and the others made things difficult. Their debut album Mr. Fantasy was released in 1967 and included the rock radio staple "Dear Mr. Fantasy" in addition to several other very strong tracks ("Heaven is in Your Mind," "Coloured Rain," "No Face, No Name, No Number"). Even on this first album, one can hear the jarring dichotomy between Mason's songs and those by Winwood/Capaldi/Wood. After the album was released, Mason left the band for a short time before returning to record their second, self-titled album. Released in 1968, Traffic was another strong album that actually featured a fair amount of collaboration between Mason and the others. The biggest song from that record was Mason's "Feelin' Alright," which would go on to be covered by numerous other artists (most notably Joe Cocker). The record had less psychedelia and featured a more stripped-down rock feel as was common in 1968 (see, for instance, the Beatles' 1968 self-titled album as another example). Other standout tracks included "Pearly Queen," "40,000 Headmen," and "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring?" At this point, though, the conflicts between Mason and the others came to a head and he left the band for good. Traffic decided to split up shortly thereafter, most notably due to Winwood joining forces with Eric Clapton (of the recently split Cream) to form Blind Faith. A final album, Last Exit, was released in 1969. While it was clearly a record-company cash-in "farewell album," it contained several strong non-album singles and B-sides such as "Medicated Goo," "Withering Tree," and "Shanghai Noodle Factory." It also had two live cuts featuring the three-man Mason-less band that were quite interesting. During the late 1960s, the band members were also in demand to play on sessions with their friends and peers, most notably Jimi Hendrix, whose 1968 masterpiece Electric Ladyland featured contributions from Winwood, Wood, and Mason. This now brings us to phase two of the Traffic story...



After one hugely successful album and US tour, Blind Faith split in late 1969. Winwood decided to write and record a solo album and asked Capaldi and Wood to contribute. One thing led to another and it instead ended up becoming the next album from a reunited Traffic. John Barleycorn Must Die was released in 1970 and was one of Traffic's biggest and most acclaimed albums, with many people to this day claiming it as their best. The album saw Winwood handling all of the guitars, bass, keyboards, and vocals while Capaldi would drum on a Traffic album for the final time until 1974. The opening salvo of "Glad/Freedom Rider" became a radio mainstay and one of their most well-known songs, and the rest of the album didn't contain any weak tracks. "Empty Pages" and the title track are stunning while the remaining songs are excellent and cover a variety of styles. Shortly after the album's release, Traffic once more expanded to a four-piece configuration by bringing in former Family and Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech. Later on in 1971, the band further expanded by adding drummer Jim Gordon (formerly of Derek and the Dominos), percussionist Rebop, and Dave Mason (for a third and final stint in the band). This line-up played six concerts in the UK which resulted in the live album Welcome to the Canteen. While this album divides many Traffic fans, in my opinion it's a solid and enjoyable document that showcases some of Mason's strongest solo material and Traffic's more extended jamming. However, Winwood made it very clear to Mason that he was only back in the band for these six shows, after which he left; the remaining line-up then went on to record The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. Released in late 1971, this album is, depending on who you ask, either Traffic's best or second-best album. The eleven minute title track was (and still is) a regular presence on FM radio, but the tracks bookending the album ("Hidden Treasure," "Many a Mile to Freedom," and "Rainmaker") showcase the best of the band's writing and musical interplay with their perfect blend of guitars, keyboards, and woodwinds. The line-up continued to turn over, however, with Gordon and Grech being dismissed from the band after the tour supporting the album due to their drug habits, while the Muscle Shoals rhythm section of David Hood (bass) and Roger Hawkins (drums) were brought in to replace them.  This incarnation of the band toured in 1972 and recorded 1973's Shootout at the Fantasy Factory, an album that has always felt like a sequel of sorts to Low Sparks. Much of this is down to the similar album art, as well as the overall feel of the songs. The writing and performances are a bit more understated (apart from the aggressive title track) and overall the album is a bit overlooked, although "Roll Right Stones," "(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired," and "Evening Blue" stand alongside anything else they recorded. It was during this period that Steve Winwood was suffering from complications due to peritonitis, while Chris Wood was sinking deeper into alcoholism and drug addiction.  A European tour followed in 1973, for which the band was augmented by Hawkins and Hood's Muscle Shoals bandmate Barry Beckett on keyboards. The resulting document from this tour was the 1973 album On the Road, showcasing material from the previous three studio albums in extended versions.  By the end of the tour, Steve's health was poor and Wood's addictions were becoming a liability, so Winwood dismissed the Muscle Shoals guys and brought Rosko Gee in on bass for the final Traffic line-up. This version of the band recorded 1974's When the Eagle Flies, which would prove to be the last album for the band. The songs were more somber and moody, most notably "Dream Gerrard" and "Graveyard People," while "Walking in the Wind" and the title track sounded more upbeat but had fairly bleak lyrics. In the midst of a UK tour in 1974, the band quietly split up.





After the 1974 split, the four original members of Traffic embarked on solo careers of varying success. Mason had success throughout the 1970s and continues to be in demand as a session player. Winwood started his solo career in the late 1970s and found megastardom in the 1980s and early 1990s with a series of hit singles and albums. Wood recorded solo albums although his addictions continued unabated, tragically leading to his death from pneumonia in 1983. Capaldi released some successful albums and continued his songwriting with and apart from Winwood. The two even recorded a final "Traffic" album, 1994's Far From Home. Capaldi eventually succumbed to stomach cancer and passed away in 2005. Musically, however, their legacy as Traffic remains intact and influential. In Winwood, the band had one of the most talented singers and instrumentalists of his generation. While he is rightfully highly regarded as a singer, piano/keyboard player, and songwriter, his talents on bass, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar are equally exceptional. His writing partner, Capadli, wrote many great lyrics for their songs and while he abandoned drumming from '71-'73, his talents behind the kit were excellent and augmented their songs. Chris Wood may be the most overlooked of the three core members, but his contributions should absolutely be appreciated for what they were. He was a great saxophone and flute player who always played to the song and functioned almost in the same way as a rhythm guitarist, supporting the song and emerging to the spotlight when it was his turn. The various members who drifted in and out of the band over their career (including founding member Mason) all brought something positive to their sound, but the core three of Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood were what gave Traffic its soul.



Getting personal now, Traffic were one of those bands that not too many people I grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s knew about, but I sure did. As far back as I can remember, my dad (who had been a Traffic fan since the 1960s) played their records. I grew up hearing songs from Mr. Fantasy, John Barleycorn Must Die, and The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys on a regular basis, as well as a lot of the earlier tracks on the compilation LP Heavy Traffic. I also recall being a bit confused/surprised that the Steve Winwood who was all over the radio and MTV with these slick AOR songs in the 80s was the same long-haired "muso" on all of those Traffic records from the 60s and early 70s. What drew me to them, besides Winwood's soulful and powerful vocals, was the instrumentation. I was used to listening to guitar-driven rock music, so to hear a band where the main driving force was piano/keyboard and where even the guitar-based songs weren't as in your face as other bands...this was something quite interesting to me. I was also really intrigued by the prominence of woodwinds as one of the main instruments in the band, and in a different manner than, say, Jethro Tull. Ultimately, what drew me in beyond all of this were the great songs and the juxtaposition of tight instrumental arrangements coupled with loose groovy improvisation (especially on their live stuff). Simply put, Traffic had a wholly unique and identifiable sound that captivated me the way it had captivated my dad and countless others in the 1960s. The fact that their music is still enjoyed and influential is a testament to their impact. If you haven't ever heard their music, I encourage you to check it out...as you can see, I think it's fantastic and I don't think you'll be disappointed. They continue to be one of my favorite bands of all time and I constantly find new things of interest and enjoyment in their songs, which I don't suspect will ever change.

2 comments:

  1. a great band that i have listened too since 1980 when i frist heard the low spark album,soo long ago.

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  2. That was one of my "gateway" albums to Traffic, too. Steve Winwood is one of the greatest musicians of his (or any) generation, don't you think?

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