The first band, of course, specialized in hip pop and gentle psychedelic sounds such as “Paper Sun.” Traffic the sequel served up a strong jazz-rock brew that utilized a revolving cast of musicians.
Short but sweet, Traffic’s “John Barleycorn Must Die”
returns remastered in a double-disc edition from Island-Universal. The new release has the good sense to restore the album to its original six-song presentation. (Previous CD versions inserted two other tracks from the sessions to slug out the running time.)
Hugely influential and widely appreciated at the time, “John Barleycorn” cracked the top 5 in the U.S and went gold in its first year.
Disc 2 of the new set provides a trio of alternate takes* from the hit album and then digs into the good stuff — more than 40 minutes of the band playing the Filmore East in support of “John Barleycorn.” The CD concludes with a 15-minute workout on “Glad/Freedom Rider.”
Traffic fans have been teased for decades with the possibility of an album covering those Nov. 18-19, 1970, concerts. The Filmore shows has been extensively bootlegged and a few of the performances were included on a 1999 version of “John Barleycorn.”
The title song, “John Barleycorn Must Die,” was a traditional English folk song that reflected the band’s rural beginnings — the original members famously found their sound in a distant cottage — as well as the back-to-the-land vibe of the day.
The instrumental “Glad,” however, opened the album with a jazz-rock jolt powered by a jump piano riff from Stevie Winwood. (text continues)
The “John Barleycorn” album started life as a solo project for Winwood, who had just left the free-form supergroup Blind Faith. Traffic broke up in 1969, but when Winwood hit a creative block he turned to ex-bandmates Jim Capaldi (drums) and Chris Wood (woodwinds) for backing on “Glad.”
“It was obvious to all of us that we should really give Traffic another go,” Winwood said at the time. That “go” did not include Dave Mason, who had worn out his welcome. Traffic was back in business and carried on for another four years.
No doubt the album’s fresh sounds can be credited in part to Winwood’s involvement at the time with Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a conglomeration that introduced many rock fans to African music.
Not everyone liked the new flow of Traffic. Rolling Stone’s reviewer thought it was OK, but cited “control-board masturbation” and mused, “Maybe the trio is still just getting together again, feeling each other out.” Robert Christgau missed Dave Mason and crabbed about “feckless improvised rock.”
The expanded “John Barleycorn Must Die” received high marks for its remastered sounds when it was released in Europe on Feb. 28. The double CD came out in the U.S. on March 15. The collection also is available as MP3 downloads.
The Traffic albums received a round of rereleases in the early part of the new century. Let’s hope this release is the vanguard of a catalog-wide upgrade.
* Disc 2’s alternate takes are of “John Barleycorn Must Die,” “Stranger to Himself’ and “Every Mother‘s Son.”