Maybe the prospect of a 15-minute “Glad” makes you, well, happy. But I would tell you that On The Road, at least in its double-elpee incarnation, is one of the lamest live albums I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard Welcome To The Canteen. The single-elpee version is less painful, as it presents the better half and begins with “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” which I could listen to on an endless loop for hours. But the band’s jammy, jazzy approach to these songs falls flat; the Grateful Dead they’re not. The chemistry between Winwood and Barry Beckett on “Glad,” for example, is poison. Chris Wood, meanwhile, is only a marginally better saxophonist than David Bowie, and certainly not up to the task of so many solos. (In his defense, the flute solo on “Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory” isn’t half bad.) The rhythm section of David Hood and Roger Hawkins is competent but colorless; maybe Winwood had to pay them extra for solos, I don’t know. The only redeeming moments on this concert come during Winwood’s guitar playing and Reebop Kwaku Baah’s possessed percussion playing. It’s a sad day when you’re pointing out how good the conga player is in a seven-piece band. I was surprised to read that a lot of people seem to like this album. I’ve never been impressed with Traffic’s live recordings, and the timing of this one is especially poor: the band was half-made of hired hands and coming off the lackluster Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory. If you’re expecting that the Shoot Out songs get a better shake on stage, they don’t; “(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired” shakes off its sleepy chains for a short guitar solo, but soon returns to the same lethargic pacing. In my opinion (and the two cents that it’s worth), On The Road is one of Traffic’s least interesting avenues and best left to those people who thought the songs on Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory weren’t long enough the first time.
This is the latest in a long and regal line of anti-war songs from John Lees. A music video was apparently created for the occasion, but I haven’t seen it. In the context of Welcome To The Show, appearing as it does after the clever “Lady MacBeth,” this song originally struck me as generic studio rock. On its own, however, it’s not a bad song and was probably a good and timely choice for a single in European markets. The single included Les Holroyd’s “Shadows On The Sky,” which was appended to the CD version of Welcome To The Show. It didn’t make the elpee cut for a reason, although the harmonies are typically good and the ending fadeout is cool. Extended singles included several songs from the live album Glasnost. One thing worth mentioning here is the fact that, while BJH’s music has changed over the years, their message has not. They have consistently sung the virtues of God, nature, peace and brotherhood. I know they don’t give awards for that kind of thing, but they should.
Traffic followed a pair of brilliant records (John Barleycorn, Low Spark) with a paradox. Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory looked like its inspired predecessor down to its diecut corners, but this is a doppelganger: a pale image of what it purports to be. Tales of Topographic Oceans (Yes) and A Day At The Races (Queen) left me similarly nonplussed. The tantalizing artwork and proximity to the band’s creative peak bespoke great wonders, but countless forays into the black grooves only left me wondering what I was missing. Now, I will tell you that dismissing these anomalies as artistic airballs is a mistake. The product of Fantasy Factory isn’t so far removed from what Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi have been peddling all along. If the songs here seem like three-note vamps extended beyond their logical limits, wasn’t that always the case? Remove the chorus from “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” and what’s left sounds a lot like “(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired.” And don’t forget their 9-minute version of “Gimme Some Lovin’.” The truth is that Fantasy Factory isn’t a complete failure any more than Topographic Oceans or Races. There are pleasant passages to be found here, from “Roll Right Stones” (my personal favorite on the album) to “Evening Blues” and even Chris Wood’s instrumental “Tragic Magic.” The title track is also interesting (although poorly mixed), featuring some of Winwood’s most aggressive guitar playing and a percussive performance from Rebop that is mesmerizing at times. Maybe the people at Mobile Fidelity knew something we didn’t, since I’ll bet this album sounds much better in a good mix with a nice pair of headphones.
The good thing about not having any recognizable hits is the freedom it affords you come compilation time. That and the magic of living paycheck to paycheck. This 1997 Disky collection draws some of the better singles and album tracks from the band’s tenure with the Harvest label, which is to say most of the classic BJH material. Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to their early music, and I’m amazed at how varied it is; you could literally subsist on a straight diet of Barclay James Harvest and still feel satiated. I mention it because this collection underscores that fact. You have the beautifully orchestrated ballads (“Mocking Bird,” “Early Morning,” “The Iron Maiden”), proggy epics (“Medicine Man,” “Summer Soldier”), straight rockers (“Ball And Chain,” “Good Love Child”) and the classical “Moonwater” to close it all out. Also included here is the non-album “I Can’t Go On Without You,” an early outtake from Woolly that later appeared on the expanded reissue of their first album. So is this a good starting point for the BJH novice? Well, I would tell you that an appreciation of the band is predicated on a familiarity with Once Again, Everyone Is Everybody Else and maybe Live for good measure. Otherwise, you might be inclined to think that “Mr. Sunshine” or “Someone There You Know” represents the best of BJH rather than flecks in a greater painting. At over 60 minutes of music, Mocking Bird is a better bet to please than some of the earlier Harvest compilations, although the Disky sets tend to be cheap knockoffs. Note that there are at least two other BJH compilations that carry the Mocking Bird moniker, both of which feature different tracks.
Kronomyth 2.0: TRIFFIC. Dave Mason briefly left the band after Mr. Fantasy, rejoined them several months later and the reconstituted quartet released their second and final album together. This time around, the songwriting is nearly split evenly between Mason and the Winwood/Capaldi/Wood contingent. The effect of two very different songwriters (Mason and Winwood) is more apparent on this record. “Feelin’ Alright” and “Cryin’ To Be Heard” are excellent songs, but they’re not necessarily excellent Traffic songs. It was in the sere, earthy arrangements of “No Time To Live” and “Forty Thousand Headmen” where Traffic’s future lie. There are also throwbacks to the first album’s playful feel on “You Can All Join In” and “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring,” one of my favorite Traffic songs, period. The rest of the album is very well done, although Jimmy Miller seems to intentionally bury a lot of good music; you can hear some of it on “Virgin Vagabond” and the brilliant closer, “Means To An End.” Throw in the powerful “Pearly Queen” and Mason’s Dylandulgence, “Don’t Be Sad,” and you’ve got a formidable bookend to the band’s breathtaking debut. Unfortunately, Mason left again after this album, and Traffic went on hiatus for several years, with Winwood re-appearing in the short-lived supergroup, Blind Faith. Their eponymous second album isn’t as startling as their debut, nor is it as silly. In fact, this is a very serious album much of the time, particularly when you pay attention to Jim Capaldi’s lyrics. But a heavier traffic isn’t a bad thing at all, as listeners would discover when John Barleycorn rolled into town.
Kronomyth 19.0: IF MUSIC BE THE FOOD OF LOVE, PLAY ON. At this stage in their career, BJH was releasing a new record every few years featuring the songs of John Lees and Les Holroyd. Produced by Andy McPherson and Jon Astley with plenty of Fairlight programming, Welcome To The Show is another crisp digital recording of sweeping ballads (from Les) and edgier synth/rock songs (from John) covering the usual topics of love, war and personal stories. I confess to having had a pretty big blindspot where BJH was concerned, so I didn’t like this record when it came out, but these days I would tell you it’s the best thing they’ve done since possibly Ring of Changes. This time, John is the clear winner, whether it’s the sinister “Lady MacBeth” (with its shades of “Medicine Man”) or the sweet remembrance of the past on “John Lennon’s Guitar” (which recalls the circumstances behind “Galadriel”). Les’ songs seem bland by comparison, although “Welcome To The Show” is a nice addition to the band’s oeuvre and readymade for the road. While it’s not as classy an affair as the Pip Williams sessions, Welcome To The Show is a pristine and professional-sounding record that casts BJH in a flattering light. As others have mused, the band was largely a marriage of convenience at this point, with the music of John Lees and Les Holroyd finding a wider audience under the familiar BJH moniker. Mel Pritchard has had little to do since the band decided to go digital, so the drums on “African Nights” are a welcome reminder of his inventive playing (I’d throw his name into a conversation of underrated drummers right after Bill Ward). If you’ve enjoyed the band’s music in the 80s, there’s no reason not to show up for this one.
This a treasure chest of psychedelic gems, produced with gleeful abandon by Jimmy Miller, with whom Winwood had worked in Spencer Davis. The material is startlingly fresh and varied, featuring psychedelic confections from Dave Mason (“House For Everyone”) and the rest of the band (“Berkshire Poppies,” “Coloured Rain”) alongside deeper numbers done in a progressive folk/blues vein (“Dear Mr. Fantasy”). The album begins with an opening trio of songs that pull nearly every possible trick from its pockets; false starts, madhouse choruses and more instruments than four people could reasonably account for are artfully combined in the pressure cooker of Jimmy Miller’s imagination while the screws are (quite literally) turned on the listener. And turned on they were. Mr. Fantasy is an album that needs to be experienced to be appreciated. How else to describe how “No Face, No Name And No Number” arrives like an oasis of sanity unless you’ve just come from “House For Everyone” and “Berkshire Poppies?” Of course, that experience depends on which version of Mr. Fantasy you own. There is the UK mono version, the UK stereo version, the US stereo version (originally released as Heaven Is In Your Mind and featuring different tracks) and the sundry repackages since then. (I would point you in the direction of the UK stereo version for starters.) This and their next album are high points in the British psychedelic movement and, together with Cream’s Disraeli Gears, provided a technicolor exclamation point at the end of 1967. Of course, the previous singles “Paper Sun” and “Hole In My Shoe” prepared you for some of this, but the emotional profundity of “No Face” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” revealed a new dimension of the band that would be highly influential for artists like Jethro Tull.
Kronomyth 1.0: A LEGEND IN TRANING. You never forget the first time. Unless you’re a recovering heroin addict getting paid what basically amounts to train fare to perform, in which case maybe you want to forget. That was John Coltrane in the waning May days of 1957, holed up in Hackensack, New Jersey with fellow MDQ refugee Paul Chambers, Red Garland and a handful of players who might each have been the next great something at one time or another. The idea of Coltrane’s first record as a leader is enough to set the senses aflame, so allow me to be the wet blanket: this is not history in the making. Sure, Coltrane’s presence is keenly felt as a soloist—from fluttering notes to a foghorn—but this is mostly by-the-books stuff from a guy who would be rewriting the book in just a few years. The most interesting songs are the two original compositions from Coltrane, “Straight Street” and “Chronic Blues,” which allude to his station as a recovering addict and foreshadow some of the adventurous music to come. The romantic “While My Lady Sleeps” is another highlight. All three tracks feature Mal Waldron, who gets the better of Red Garland on this disc. A few of the songs on here feature three horns (including trumpet and baritone sax), which would seem unwieldy on the surface, but Coltrane actually uses the three together sparingly and most effectively when stating a short theme. The opening “Bakai” is one of those three-horned songs, a busy cityscape that reminds me of some of Coleman Hawkins’ more modern-sounding compositions. Coltrane wouldn’t hit his stride for a few years; this and some of the other Prestige recordings are baby steps compared to the giant steps of 1960 and after. Given the interest in Coltrane’s music, Prestige certainly got their money’s worth out of these recordings, but I can think of at least half a dozen places where your $15 would be better spent on Trane fare.
This is the last in a three-volume set from ABC that collects the best songs from Coltrane’s albums on the Impulse label with Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner. At the time, His Greatest Years was probably the most exhaustive retrospective of his work, although it’s confined to a handful of years (1963 to 1967) during Coltrane’s deliberately difficult avant-garde phase. Despite the relatively small sampling of time, Coltrane (as we know) defied time, space and most other dimensions when he played, so the music collected here is remarkably varied. There are the perfect love songs where Coltrane blows aces (“Dedicated To You,” “Dear Lord”), the frenzied marathons where Coltrane literally spends his saxophone until there’s nothing left ( “Chasin’ The Trane,” “Cosmos”) and the glissandoing magic of his later works (“Expression,” “Welcome”). Also included here as an added bonus for collectors is a live version of “Nature Boy” recorded at NYC’s Village Gate on March 28, 1965 that originally appeared on the Impulse compilation, The New Wave In Jazz, and no doubt left both player and audience exhausted. The album ends on a risky note with “Living Space,” part of Alice Coltrane’s daring re-vision of her husband’s last recordings that appeared on the posthumous Infinity. In retrospect, “Living Space” is a prescient work that prefigures much of the avant-garde, multicultural and minimalist music to come; kudos to ABC for coming to Infinity’s defense so quickly. In 1980, after MCA acquired the ABC catalog, they reissued the three-volume series with its original cover artwork and simply stamped a new number on top of it.
Turn of the Tide was a turn for the worse, as BJH ditched their guitars in favor of synthesizers and the soul-selling that such a move entails. If you’re looking for a guitar solo on Ring of Changes, you won’t find it. What you will find, from the very onset, is the kind of coiffed and atmospheric production usually reserved for tier A bands such as, well, The Moody Blues. I don’t like the comparisons either, but BJH openly invited them by inviting Pip Williams to produce this album. Ring of Changes begins with an orchestral flourish that might be their classiest moment since “Moonwater.” It quickly fades to reveal a lovely ballad from John Lees that sounds—how else to put this?—refreshed. As Lees later reveals in the magical story, “Paraiso Dos Cavalos,” he enjoyed an extended vacation in Portugal that seems to have revived his spirits. And a revival this is, in the sense that Lees returns to writing hopeful, heartfull songs about the past (“Fifties Child,” “Teenage Heart”) and the present (“Midnight Drug,” “Paraiso”). His creative counterpart, Les Holroyd, delivers songs about bad love, good love and life with the usual warm results. From what I’ve read, critics seem to lump this album in with their last, and I would make a point of separating them. Turn of the Tide sounded tired. Ring of Changes sounds recharged. Is it an outwardly better album than The Present? No, not really. But it is a better effort than their last and in line with where I would want them to be at this stage: trading in mellotron magic for studio wizardry while continuing to write personal and occasionally powerful songs.