By the time Traffic recorded John Barleycorn Must Die in 1970, a new phase of their career had begun. The psychedelic rock songs had been replaced by mellower, jazzy jams. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Dave Mason had gone his separate way, recording the excellent Alone Together with Leon Russell and Bonnie & Delaney Bramlett in 1970. In 1971, however, Mason joined Traffic for a short stint on the road. Although he was enthusiastic about the energy of the live shows and expressed interest in touring America, the reunion only lasted for six dates. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful run and Island was there to record it. Instead of exploring the Barleycorn material on Welcome to the Canteen, Traffic dipped into its vintage material, added a couple of Mason tracks, and put on one more rock 'n' roll show to close out the era. While this makes the album unrepresentative of the band's later work, a number of these live tracks are simply glorious.
The first half of Welcome to the Canteen -- about 20 minutes -- exceeds expectations. The band kicks off with a high energy take on "Medicated Goo", dating from Last Exit. This is one of the many Traffic songs that means absolutely nothing. Once upon a time, it seems, being a good rock 'n' roll band was enough. Next up, Mason offers the gentle "Sad and Deep as You" with little more than an acoustic guitar and flute to sustain his vocal. The polite crowd seems more than happy to have him back in the fold. Winwood then delivers a six-minute take on "40,000 Headmen", a lovely minor-key piece that evokes a mysterious, undefined time and place. The song goes on about twice as long as it needs to, but no one really seems to mind. This half of the album, or Side A as it was originally issued, closes out with "Shouldn't Have Took More Than You Gave", the most charged five minutes on the album. The song rocks and the band gels beautifully here, creating a perfect Traffic moment.
The second half of the album contains all of two tracks: "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and "Gimme Some Lovin'". This material is much less essential, primarily due to the looseness of the extended jams and indifferent Winwood vocals. He apparently was ready, according to the liner notes, to get back to the studio to work on new material. Perhaps this set of oldies bored him. These two cuts also remind the listener that this version of the band wasn't well rehearsed; everyone may have known all of the key changes, but they couldn't necessarily turn it into magic. And while "Dear Mr. Fantasy" opens up easily for extended jamming, "Gimme Some Lovin'" doesn't seem worthy of a nine-minute take. Still, Mason's gritty guitar adds a little something extra to these pieces.
It's interesting to note that Island's reissue of Welcome to the Canteen doesn't include any bonus tracks. While repeated songs and inferior outtakes can be boring on reissues, it would have been fun to have another 20 minutes of live Traffic for better or worse. Even as it stands, though, the album offers a close facsimile of what the original Traffic sounded like live, and that's reason enough to add it to your collection. It seems ironic in retrospect that Mason's temporary return to the fold augmented a back-to-the-basics approach, because his pop bent had always been a matter of contention within the band. This short-lived version of Traffic rocked much harder than the band would on either John Barleycorn Must Die or Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. Perhaps the guys relished an opportunity to say goodbye to an earlier era by playing a little rock 'n' roll one more time.