From the inside cover of John Barleycorn Must Die,
the only picture I can find of the three man version of Traffic.
I have long had the idea that three-man bands rock harder than they have to just to prove they can. My first case in point was The James Gang . I now present you Traffic.
Traffic did not begin as a three man band, nor did they end as one. But for a brief, shining moment in 1969-1970, when Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, and Chris Wood came together for what was ostensibly a Steve Winwood solo album, these three members of Traffic became the three-man incarnation of Traffic, my personal favorite.
The three-man version of Traffic consisted of Winwood on piano/organ/vocals, Capaldi on drums/background vocals, and Wood on sax (I would postulate that other instruments were also played by these members, but I have no proof). Interestingly enough, Winwood began the album by playing all the instruments himself, calling Capaldi and Wood in for help. Thank God. Not that I have anything against Winwood – I just really like Jim Capaldi. And Chris Wood, too, I suppose.
At any rate, the trio Traffic is much more interesting than the previous incarnations; mind you I like the previous incarnations, and appreciate Dave Mason’s contributions, but the Traffic I love is the jazzy, funky Traffic of John Barleycorn Must Die. This version makes a terrific amount of noise for a trio, all of it worth hearing.
I grew up listening to John Barleycorn on vinyl, no idea where I got it, and it’s to this day one of my favorites to hear on vinyl. It has a warm, full sound, with all that electric piano and sax, that’s perfect for vinyl, and Jim Capaldi’s drumming is so precise that it actually seems to snap out of the record.
Let me also note that I often find sax offensive in rock music. I give Chris Wood a pass. He’s bringing it, and I have to believe that Pink Floyd was listening. So was Supertramp, but I digress…
Without further ado, three of my favorite tracks by one of my favorite trios…
NOTE: It is absolutely essential that you listen to “Glad” segue into “Freedom Rider.” This is the only way to properly enjoy either song. I mean it.
Glad – Rock instrumentals are often tedious, surf music notwithstanding. “Glad” is anything but tedious. It rocks from the get go. It gets a little mellow toward the end, and you start to worry, but never fear, it kicks right back into gear. As an aside, I’ve always thought Steve Winwood was overrated as a singer and underrated as a musician. Does he sound black? Who cares. He can play anything with keys like a house on fire. Who, prior to 1970, would have thought he had the chops that he displays on John Barleycorn?
Freedom Rider – Now that “Glad” has you all warmed up, you’re ready for “Freedom Rider.” That sax intro is seductive, as is Jim Capaldi’s incredibly crisp drumming. But it’s Steve Winwood’s piano that propels this song – okay, his voice has something to do with it too, but that piano is something else. The sax gets a little wonky in places, thanks Chris, but it’s still a great song.
Empty Pages – This may possibly be my favorite Traffic song. I’ll probably change my mind by next week, but I can say that growing up, this was definitely my favorite Traffic song. This was one I nearly wore the grooves on the record out from repetitive listening. That intro is an attention getter, and Steve Winwood was never in better voice. The electric piano just cooks, and Jim Capaldi just beats it into shape. No sax to be found – Chris Wood must have been taking a smoke break. And if the intro kicks ass, how about the finale? Perfect.
Three man bands. I can go on this riff awhile. Help me out. Make some suggestions, please…