Progressive Rock With a Capital P: Traffic's John Barleycorn Must Die
Steve Winwood is seldom mentioned in the same sentence as former bandmate Eric Clapton, but this lesser-known legend was making better music than just about anyone during the earliest days of the prog-rock revolution.
One difficulty with talking intelligently about much of the amazing music made in the ‘70s is that it is so often lazily lumped together. Classic Rock, Progressive Rock, Freedom Rock, etc.
This would be okay, or at least tolerable, if these facile generalizations were intended to be laudatory. Too often, they are not, which naturally trivializes the variety and significance of that extended era. More importantly, it shortchanges the historic import of a time when genres and boundaries were, arguably, more fluid and formless (and non-commercial) than ever before or since.
Music and culture were changing at an unprecedented pace as the ‘60s ended, with the margins and mainstream increasingly overlapping. This was when Sly Stone was listening to James Brown (and vice versa), Miles Davis was digging Jimi Hendrix, Ian Anderson invoked Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Neil Young busied himself creating entirely new categories of music, almost singlehandedly inventing grunge, country-rock and a prototype for the New Depression ethos, all in less than three years.
Perhaps only during this time and in this environment could an album like John Barleycorn Must Die be created. Initially intended to be a solo project, the project wound up ushering in the second reincarnation of Traffic. While the ‘60s albums blended acoustic folk and psychedelia and the ‘70s output featured larger line-ups and sprawling, adventurous compositions, John Barleycorn Must Die is a bit of both, an accidental but brilliant product relaunch.
While he may not have been a household name, Steve Winwood was, circa 1970, at the very top of rock music’s second-tier. Only 18 when he sang the ubiquitous ‘60s single “Gimme Some Lovin’”, his vocals were in the service of the Spencer Davis Group. In his next band, Traffic, he shared the spotlight with Dave Mason. After Traffic splintered, he joined forces with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker (and Ric Grech) in the uber-supergroup Blind Faith. Perhaps not surprisingly, that collective was a one-and-done affair.
Taking a page out of the Stevie Wonder playbook, Winwood contemplated playing all the instruments himself and making a true “solo” album, tentatively titled Mad Shadows. This would have been impressive for obvious reasons, but in a move shrewd as it was inspired, he turned to two former mates and recruited their services for his new project. Enter drummer Jim Capaldi and multi-reedist Chris Wood and suddenly the second incarnation of Traffic was officially underway.
Six songs, 35 minutes; a short album even by old-school standards, John Barleycorn Must Die manages to pack in plenty of action. There is not a weak song or wasted moment. The first three tunes (Side One for us nostalgic sorts) may not comprise one of the best all-time sides in rock, but certainly one of the most satisfactory. The individual songs are excellent, but the sequence and flow are flawless, with an opening statement, a centerpiece and a reflective, side-closing tour de force.
Album opener “Glad” is an appropriately named jam, jazzy without resorting to noodling, rocking in the right ways and, above all, a showcase for the considerable skills of all involved. Winwood’s (somewhat unheralded) organ playing is supple yet swinging, and Capaldi ably provides a less-is-more panache that is evident throughout the proceedings. The real star (and egregiously unheralded hero of this era) is Chris Wood. His sax work on “Glad” and “Freedom Rider” is as funky and infectious as just about any jazz playing of the time, but his economic style maximizes feeling and eschews any semblance of showboating. When he switches from sax to flute on “Freedom Rider”, his runs are soulful enough to make your head—and ass—shake. This band’s M.O., in short, is very different from the one that made “Dear Mr. Fantasy”. There is a muscular groove that blends rock, R&B and, of course, jazz. The result is an invigorating, effortlessly cool cocktail: progressive rock with a capital P. Nothing else being made at this time sounded anything like this. The album endures due to its unique energy, but mostly because it remains utterly engaging.
The legendary producer Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records, once described Steve Winwood as “Ray Charles on helium”. While ostensibly amusing, it is also an accurate, possibly even perfect depiction. Considering he was barely into his 20s, it is astonishing how mature, distinctive and convincing Winwood sounds on this set. Take the third song, “Empty Pages”. If slowed down a bit you can almost fancy Ray Charles singing this number. The fact that it’s a diminutive, pasty white Englishman only proves that you can’t judge a bloke by his color. In any event, “Empty Pages” may be Winwood’s finest moment. The organ, the bass lines and, as always, those vocals, melancholy cut with resolve—just a 22-year-old making some of the best music of the new decade.
The second side slows things down a little but the intensity does not abate. Lyrically, “Stranger to Himself” is as relevant today as the hour it was written: “Through his nightmare vision, he sees nothing, only well.” He's maybe a hippie, perhaps a politician, probably no one in particular, but certainly someone we all know. The title track, a traditional English folksong, is undoubtedly the best known of the bunch—certainly by music fans unfamiliar with Traffic. Winwood’s delivery is somber, and the acoustic guitar and flute flourishes are appropriately stark for this tale of death (and redemption/revenge). The last song, “Every Mother’s Son”, is as ideal a coda as “Glad” is an opening salvo. The organ swells and sharp electronic guitar chords accompany an extremely emotional—and affecting—vocal performance.
This deluxe edition boasts some bonus tracks, which should satisfy completists. The real draw, for aficionados, will be the second disc’s live set, recorded at The Fillmore East in late 1970. The band is certainly locked in, doing these tunes justice before an appreciative crowd, but these versions (inevitably?) are looser and less focused. They are worthwhile, but not nearly as memorable as the original material. The sound quality is sufficiently impressive that anyone who didn’t already pick up the original remaster from 1999 is advised to make the upgrade from the somewhat muffled original pressing.
Winwood was already on a roll. He would carry this momentum into the first part of the decade, and Traffic would follow up John Barleycorn Must Die with another near masterpiece, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. As noted, Winwood will never be mentioned in the same sentence as former bandmate Eric Clapton (unless it is to mention that they once worked in the same band), but the fact of the matter is this lesser-known legend was making better music than just about anyone during the earliest days of the prog-rock revolution. He makes a compelling case for his legacy when, in “Empty Pages”, he sings, “I’ve been thinking I’m working too hard / But I’ve got something to show”. He has indeed, and it shines on.