Continuing a survey of the remarkable career of Steve Winwood
Setting up a colourful tent at the English folk-rock fayre, John Barleycorn Must Die, with its linocut sheath of grain picture and earthy brown sleeve, was a heady brew of rock, folk and jazz influences that sounds remarkably fresh to this day. Opening with the grooving melody of ‘Glad’, it segues into ‘Freedom rider’, an image-laden story of a potent, shadowy figure whose impact is powerful but of uncertain beneficence. Around the ‘trad. arranged Winwood’ title song are two classic slow Winwood/Capaldi rock ballads —‘Stranger to himself’ and ‘Every mother’s son’— that showcase the instrumental chops of the band and the leader’s melancholy voice. Indeed, it is fair to say that the slower, more mournful songs are the strength of the second phase of Traffic. It’s probably no accident that ‘Glad’ has no lyrics; no-one could find a way to write words for a glad song.
Shortly after the stop-gap (but fan-friendly) live album Welcome To The Canteen came my favourite Traffic album. Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (1971) is, for me, a fabulous blend of rock, progressive and jazz flavourings that surges to new heights on the sides of the epic title track. If you can hear the simple, infectious bass pulse of ‘Low Spark’ and not be hooked, consider consulting a cardiologist. ‘Light up or leave me alone’ sends a taunting and unfriendly message to an uptight paramour. What a contrast with ‘Many a mile to freedom’, whose melodic and lyrical yearning is both riveting and transporting.
Ensuring things stay grounded, ‘Rock & roll stew’ has a sardonic energy and a dose of funk to boot. Final song ‘Rainmaker’ is a magical journey that is infused with sadness. Winwood’s melancholy voice invites the bringing of rain, tears of the sky. I remember reading somewhere that the song alluded to the short story ‘The Rainmaker’, a coda to Herman Hesse’s final novel The Glass Bead Game. Or maybe I just conflated the two as I read the book around the time I was deeply into Low Spark.
Can’t leave the High Heeled Boys without a mention of the fantastic cover. Designed by Tony Wright, its cut corners and illusory room in the clouds were perfect for an album that was mystical, musical, and not like anything else. For this fan, Low Spark of High Heeled Boys and John Barleycorn Must Die (1970) are the Traffic essentials.
Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory hoped to continue the progress of Low Spark, but was only partially successful. I wrote about it in a memoir story here, focussing on the brilliant centrepiece ‘Roll Right Stones’. Just as the music on Shoot Out is a clear continuation of the style of the previous album, so the album cover echoed its predecessor in art and design, but the spark was not as bright.
Album, tour, album, tour. That’s the rock rhythm. Traffic went on the road after Shoot Out and, unsurprisingly, released a double live double album called On The Road (US fans were dudded with a single album). It’s a terrific ‘in concert’ release, where the band stretch out on pieces from the three preceding studio albums in a way that enriches appreciation of the songs. Some might accuse these version of being unfocused, but I love the extended instrumental sections. Indeed there are two entirely instrumental pieces; the Shoot Out title cut and side one, where the twenty-one minutes of Glad > Freedom Rider has the proportions 16 minutes > 5 minutes. With Barry Beckett recruited for organ donations, and Roger Hawkins sharing drum duties with Jim Capaldi, the sound is quite sumptuous, especially with the added percussion textures of Reebop Kwaku Baah pattering away. This also means that Winwood has more time for guitar work, which he delivers with great skill and invention. I’ve mentioned already what a fine guitarist he is. Overall, a fine 70s live album.
After On the Road (1973), Traffic recorded their final album until the nineties, the subdued When The Eagle Flies (1974). This album has never really grabbed me. The songs feel longer even though they are shorter; the energy seems diffused, depleted. And rich rock stars moaning about the upkeep costs of their country estates (‘Memories of a rock and rolla’) while taking shots at unionists striving for better conditions (‘Graveyard people’) doesn’t really commend itself to my proletarian sensibilities. To my ears, the band was on a downward arc. And I wasn’t the only one who thought Traffic had slowed to a halt; Steve Winwood told Rolling Stone:
I’d had enough of this album, tour, album, tour. It was like I was on a treadmill and there was no way of getting off. I just had to say, ‘That’s it with Traffic; no way can I do it any more’. I wanted to bring discipline to an undisciplined life.
The Eagle had not so much landed, as dropped off the twig entirely.
This seems like a fitting time to drop in the first of the two significant collaborations in the Winwood catalogue. I’m making a distinction between these records and the many sessions to which he contributed for two reasons. Firstly, these albums were significant projects on which Winwood played a major role, and secondly, the number and breadth of sessions is massive. In addition to the Airforce, our man played on albums by colleague Jim Capaldi, the Bonzo’s Viv Stanshall, Sandy Denny, Toots and the Maytals, George Harrison, Lou Reed, Jade Warrior, and Marianne Faithfull. And that is far from a complete list. Journalists who carped about Winwood’s disappearance were definitely not reading the backs of their album sleeves.
The first collaboration occurred while Traffic was still moving, during a break Winwood had taken to recover from illness. As part of his recuperation, he joined with African musicians Remi Kabaka, also demobbed from Ginger Baker’s Airforce, and Abdul Laisi Amao, part of the original incarnation of Osibisa (the first World Music fusion band?) to record a one-of album under the band-name Third World (nothing to do with the later reggae band, also on Island).
It’s an infections, groove-based album of long, mostly instrumental pieces. I’ve read it described as reggae in several places, but that’s not the word I’d use. Aiye-keta (1973) is a genuine hybrid of African and Western rock styles; boasting lovely flute and sax from Amao, washed in Winwood’s synth work and leavened by his excellent guitar it really does sound like a blend of Osibisa and Traffic. Highly recommended for those attuned to their African roots.
Previously: Smiling Phases