Thursday, January 28, 2010

John Barleycorn Must Die


When the Traffic jam ended in 1969, upon releasing their final album appropriately titled Last Exit, the band shifted it into park, turned off the ignition and walked away from their brief but respectable career (after only three albums). Guitarist Dave Mason went on to hang out with other musicians, including pal Jimi Hendrix (that’s Mason strumming the acoustic guitar on “All Along the Watchtower”) before starting his own long and successful solo career. Vocalist/keyboardist Steve Winwood ventured on to what he assumed would be long-running superstardom with super group Blind Faith (joined by Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker from the recently disbanded Cream) but it wasn’t meant to be. After just one album and tour, Blind Faith lost faith…and that was that. Now wandering the English musical wilderness alone, Winwood began work on several tracks for a possible solo album to be called Mad Shadows. But after calling in his old Traffic buds Chris Wood (woodwinds) and Jim Capaldi (drums) to help out in the studio, everyone kissed and made up. The Traffic engine was getting revved up all over again. So, what the hell…let’s call it a Traffic album! It certainly couldn’t hurt record sales. If anything, John Barleycorn Must Die has to be one of the quickest “reunion” albums ever made, coming within a mere one year after the band actually broke up. Maybe the break did them some good, however, because what is also evident on this album is a renewed spark of creative energy. The old familiar Traffic sound, a kind of bluesy, whimsical Hammond organ-based British psychedelia, was still there. But now there was a looser, more jazzy vibe perfectly realized on the opening track “Glad” – a nimble instrumental held together by Winwood’s funky acoustic piano/organ riffs bouncing off each other, embellished with some nasty (in a good way) sax work by Wood. “Freedom Rider” cruises right along, again with Winwood’s piano/organ interplay (you can almost see his feet shuffling while playing lines on the organ’s bass pedals) and more killer woodwind workouts by Wood, especially the fluttering flute solo in the middle section. Once we get to the third track, “Empty Pages,” it’s obvious to anyone with ears that if this is indeed an official Traffic album, then it’s most likely going to end up being one of the best Traffic albums. This track harkens back to Traffic of old, with its thick, stately organ chords spinning madly through a rotating Leslie speaker and Winwood’s soulful vocals wailing "Staring at empty pages..." throughout the chorus. He stays firmly in the driver’s seat for the subsequent tracks, adding some tasty acoustic and electric guitar work to the funky piano-pounder “Stranger to Himself” as well as the searing lead guitar line that anchors “Every Mothers Son,” (minus the apostrophe) one of the album’s strongest tracks. Winwood gently plucks and strums some delicate, folky acoustic guitar on the rustic “John Barleycorn,” their reworking of a traditional English folk song dating all the way back to 1465. Its lyrics describe the efforts of townsfolk to kill off the symbolic John Barleycorn, thus destroying the sinful alcoholic beverages distilled from barley. But their valiant labors may have been in vain, according to the final verse:

“And little Sir John with his nut brown bowl
And his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John with his nut brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last…”

If they couldn’t do in poor little John Barleycorn and his evil brew, then Traffic merely upheld this grand English tradition. As in the case of John Barleycorn Must Die, you just can’t keep a great band down.

Essential tracks: “Glad” “Freedom Rider” “Empty Pages” “Every Mothers


  1. One of my favorite albums ever. You can hear the occasional missed note on the flute and guitar solos, makes it much more real (and personal) to me. Not like todays over-processed music.

  2. An absolute classic. Thanks for the refresher on this incredible album - certainly a mainstay in my collection.

  3. This one seemed to just come out of nowhere. Everyone thought the band had broken up. Then...WHAM. It's all you heard on FM radio in the summer of '70. Killer album from start to finish, still sounds fresh today.

  4. Great insight into this great this day I love the spinning Leslie speakers. I will buy this CD because I forgot all about it except for an occasional tune you here now and then. I have the LP but..Another intersting review and fun learning about the band. Thanks.

  5. My favorite Traffic album. The John Barleycorn ballad prepares the US for the British folk wave (Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention)that would assert itself the US the following year.