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am 30. April 2005
The original 1970 disc "John Barleycorn Must Die" is one of those albums that marks the end of Sixties music for me and I have always thought of "Glad" as the song that really allowed Traffic to justify their name and really jam. I truly cannot think of a better instrumental number from this period (the end of "Layla" does not count), plus I have an irrevocable association in my mind for the song and one of the more interesting movies I saw my first semester of college. Ironically, this was not supposed to be a Traffic album but the first solo album for Steve Winwood, who was still only 22 years old at that point although already a veteran of the Spencer Davis Group with the classic "Gimme Some Lovin'" on his resume as the definitive screaming organ piece of the decade. Winwood intended to play all of the instruments on his album (just like Paul McCartney did on his self-titled solo album that same year), but then Winwood had Jim Capaldi and then Chris Wood to help work on the sessions and suddenly Traffic had not only its first album in a year but its best one.
The most amazing thing about this album is that while you have the opening track "Glad," perhaps the best example of jazz influence in rock and roll, you also have the mournful folk ballade "John Barleycorn," with the voices of Winwood and Capaldi entwined over and around an acoustic guitar. You would swear these songs had to come from different albums because they really have nothing in common representing jazz and folk as they do. This time around the band takes the time to explore their songs, with four of the songs lasting longer than six minutes, which in 1970 was really considered pushing the envelope. It also signaled a new level of musical commitment for the group to artistic rather than commercial success, since these were the four longest songs they had recorded to date. The group might still be jamming, but at a higher level that before their last breakup because they are simply on the same wavelength at this point.
The other thing that strikes me about Traffic is that they really knew how to start a song, especially the awesome piano lick that begins "Glad," but also on "Stranger to Himself" and "John Barleycorn." The album made it to #5 on the Billboard album chart. "Empty Pages" was actually released as the obligatory single and although it is arguably the catchiest tune on the album and shows Winwood's virtuostity on the electric piano only made it to #64 on the singles chart. As for the question of whether "Freedom Rider" is really about Jim Morrison of the Doors, you can make of that what you will, but it is too late for me to make that a major association in my appreciation of the song. "Stranger to Himself" is actually a message song, but focusing on the lyrics is always problematic on this album given the attention that must be paid to the music. That is why "John Barleycorn Must Die" is arguably the greatest Sixties album not produced in the actual decade of the Sixties.
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