John Barleycorn Must Die is the Traffic album that nearly never was. After all, the band had split up a couple of years earlier after guitarist Dave Mason left the group for the second time. It was a sudden end to what had seemed like such a bright beginning only a couple of years before.
Traffic formed in April 1967 when Spencer Davis Group man, Steve Winwood, ex-Deep Feeling drummer Jim Capaldi, flautist and saxophonist Chris Wood (who had been in Shades of Blue with Christine McVie) and Dave Mason, who decades later turned up in the post-Christine McVie Fleetwood Mac. Such are the roundabout ways of music.
Their early psychedelic songs were all hits in the UK with “Paper Sun,” “Hole in My Shoe,” and “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” all hitting the UK Top 10 singles chart within a period of six months. However, they quickly diversified, incorporating jazz and improvisational techniques into their sound for their second and, seemingly, last album, Traffic. With the band splitting, Steve Winwood headed off to join Eric Clapton in the ill-fated Blind Faith, but after that band’s abrupt end he went into the recording studio to make his debut solo album, to be called Mad Shadows, with producer Guy Stevens.
But after only getting a couple of tracks down — “Stranger to Himself” and “Every Mother’s Son” — he invited Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi along, and Traffic was reborn; albeit in a different style to what had gone before. With the UK folk-rock explosion headed by the likes of Pentangle and Fairport Convention underway, Traffic added some of that influence to the jazz and blues concoction of their second album, and ended up creating what will always be their masterpiece, John Barleycorn Must Die.
This deluxe edition has been overseen by Steve Winwood and, as well as the original studio album, now digitally remastered, you’re getting a second disc of bonus material featuring seven songs recorded live in 1970 at the Fillmore East in New York alongside alternate mixes and versions of album tracks. And it really is worth the effort.
It’s hard to believe that Winwood was still only 22 years old at the time, such was his experience by that point, but this record has a depth and inventiveness that puts most of his then contemporaries firmly in the shade. After a break from recording his solo album to play with Ginger Baker’s Airforce, he tried to finish off “Glad,” a jazz-influenced instrumental. However, he realised that what was missing was Jim Capaldi’s drumming and Chris Wood’s saxophone, something that made the whole album take off.
Some of the songs reflect the more pastoral sound of Blind Faith and Delaney & Bonnie, especially the likes of “Freedom Rider,” The Fairport Convention influence comes firmly to the fore on the title track, with the Traffic rendition of the seventeenth century traditional folk song “John Barleycorn Must Die,” a song that also appears on the bonus disc in an earlier incarnation.
The live tracks from the Fillmore East were recorded on November 18th and 19th for a projected live album. That album was shelved, and even though a couple of tracks ended up on the 1999 CD reissue, the versions here have never been previously released.
This is a superb album, the kind of record that only seemed to be made in the seventies when you could mix up jazz, blues, folk and even the odd bit of prog, and have it become a hit.
Traffic carried on for another few, solid if unspectacular albums, before Winwood went solo for a couple of highs but mainly musical lows. There was a brief nineties reunion, but if you’ve never heard this album before, give yourself a slap and make up for it now.