A couple of days ago we finished off a series of 10 albums that have been inspirational to the sound and style of our own band. But all those reviews were rather focused on my own opinions and influences. And there are some long term members of the band who obviously have their own influences which they brought to the table too. In this article, Theo Travis is going to take a look at an album he feels has been a part of what he's done for this band. And it's "John Barleycorn Must Die" and it's by TRAFFIC,
I have been listening to Traffic’s ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’ since I was about 15 years old. I first found it in the record library in Central Birmingham (where I grew up) which I used to visit about 3 times a week after school, borrowing and taping everything that inspired me which was a lot of records! It was an Aladdin’s Cave of amazing music that in big way shaped my musical horizons. This album resonated with me deeply and I have loved it ever since.
The album was recorded and released in 1970 and it was originally going to be a Steve Winwood solo album, but when he brought in his friends Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood, it turned into a Traffic reunion and a relaunch of the band. John Barleycorn Must Die starts with the only sole Steve Winwood composition an instrumental called ‘Glad’. The track begins with a classic piano and organ riff and the whole piece grooves away for just under 7 minutes. It is wonderful song and I have been playing it live with my Double Talk band recently. I was hooked on the breezy jazzy vibe of the album, the many sax (and electric sax), flute and organ solos, the great feel of the band, the fabulous songs and Steve Winwood’s incredible voice – so soulful and mature beyond his years. Chris Wood was the sax and flute player in Traffic and his playing and musical approach has been very influential to me. The fact that Traffic were also from Birmingham made them seem all the more real and close to home. In fact a friend’s parents had known Steve Winwood, his brother Muff and their parents too. I would not say Chris Wood is one of the great sax and flute players in rock, but I have probably listened as much to his playing as I have to Sonny Rollins or Charlie Parker. His flute playing adds so much to the songs and shows just how woodwind can enhance the songs and fit perfectly in progressive music generally. I always found just his sound so engaging – he had a beautiful flute tone and the instruments were recorded very well and they were also pretty loud in the mix, like a voice or a lead guitar. On this album, there are almost no guitar solos and barely any electric guitar at all – just some acoustic guitar on a couple of tracks. That is another similarity to some of the Tangent’s albums, where the keyboards are very much the frontline lead instrument. Of course the Tangent has changed line up many times and Roine and Luke in particular have of course contributed some wonderful guitar playing to the Tangent sound while they have been in the band. But Andy’s keyboards are a constant in the Tangent sound and very much the lead sound.
‘Freedom Rider’ is second on the album and my favourite track too. Listening back to it now I can see how the woodwind adds so much to the song. It starts with a fat tenor sax riff before Steve Winwwod’s vocals come in soulfully and soaring, then there is a big flute solo with trills, fluttering and energetic runs of notes giving a very airy feel to the track. After the flute solo is a cool wah-wah tenor sax solo as well, before the vocals return.
At the time of the album Traffic was just a three piece – Steve Winwood on vocals and organ, Chris Wood on sax and flute and Jim Capaldi on drums and vocals. Dave Mason had already left and it was before the band expanded to the bigger subsequent line up. I think they did tour as a three piece but soon brought in others to fill out the band live. Like the Tangent, an evolving and changing line-up was a constant, though the same lead vocals/keyboards and sax/flute were always there.
The track John Barleycorn is a traditional folk ballad but done in their own style. Instrumentally, it is largely a duet between the acoustic guitar and the flute and I love that. Though more folk rock in a darker acoustic Led Zeppelin/John Martyn vein than a Fairport or ‘Hey Nonny Nonny’ vibe it is still a Summer of Love/ ‘Getting it together in the country’ sort of sound. I really like the way the flute weaves in and out of the vocals and the guitar and this is something I actually tried to emulate on my ‘Earth to Ether’ album with singer and guitarist Richard Sinclair (of Caravan and Hatfield and the North)
The Tangent has always had a Canterbury Music influence on its sound and I think this comes both from Andy’s writing and the bright and breezy flute flurries and interludes in the songs. Whilst Traffic were never a Canterbury Band, the woodwind in that band worked as perfectly as in any of those bands. I am certainly influenced by the flute of Chris Wood and Traffic as much as the flute in Gong, Soft Machine (and I know their music very well!) and other Canterbury bands and for me ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’ is the quintessential Traffic album. If you don’t know it – do check it out!