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.
Kronomyth 2.0: THE RAINBOW CONNECTION. You know the story, so I’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say that Clapton finally came out to play, and Townshend comes out smelling like a rose. The original Rainbow concerts consisted of two shows (both on January 13, 1973), billed as Eric Clapton and The Palpitations, and you could rightfully expect some with the likes of Clapton, Townshend, Steve Winwood, Ron Wood and supporting members of Blind Faith and Traffic sharing the same stage. Despite conditions that were ripe for failure (Clapton’s heroin habit, a scant ten days of rehearsal), the concerts were an unqualified success and showed that Clapton had lost little of his edge and ability. The resulting elpee, unfortunately, was a heavily abridged version of the concerts reduced to six tracks including one by Traffic (“Pearly Queen”) and a little-known Derek & the Dominos b-side, “Roll It Over.” If you bought that elpee, you got rolled indeed. The 14-track remaster is an act of atonement that draws from both shows to present something much closer to the actual concert experience, in chronological order with only two tracks missing (“Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”). If you see the original elpee in a used record store somewhere, punch it for me. Then go buy this expanded remaster, because there’s a shortage of miracles in the world and this is surely 1 of them; 2 bad it took 22 years to roll around. I’d rank this as the most essential of Clapton’s live records, and then I’d tell you confidentially that live records aren’t really made to be listened to over and over; they’re reference documents, like a thesaurus. As you slough through some of Clapton’s mediocre studio albums and wonder why people bothered showing up at all, return to the Rainbow and your faith in the man’s star presence will be renewed.
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 was the first Jim Capaldi album I ever owned and, truth be told, I didn’t dig it much at first. I filed it somewhere between John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges and Ringo’s “with a lot of help from my friends” albums, but without the magical mystery of The Beatles. Since then, however, I’ve done a lot more digging in the latter-day Traffic albums and Capaldi’s first album looking for something of value, and find that none of them deliver the goods quite so much as Whale Meat Again. Recorded between Traffic albums and once more featuring the Muscle Shoals band, Capaldi’s second album is structured very similar to his first; “It’s All Right” even sounds like a breezy version of “Eve.” Whale Meat Again also feels like a weightier record. The seven-minute “Yellow Sun” and eight-minute “Summer Is Fading” invite comparison to Traffic’s longer tracks, while songs like “Low Rider” and “Whale Meat Again” return to Capaldi’s dark lyrical haunts (i.e., no bad/sad couplets here). The vocals on this album are better too, channeling John Lennon on “My Brother” and “Whale Meat Again” (the title track always reminds me a little of “Woman is the Nigger of the World”). Missing here is the scorching lead guitar work of Paul Kossoff and Dave Mason, replaced by the in-house artistry of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section’s Pete Carr and Jimmy Johnson. It could be Kossoff and Mason that tilt critics in favor of Capaldi’s first record, but I’d argue that his second is stronger. It’s also a nicely packaged record, with an illustrated lyric sleeve that recalls Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
Kronomyth 9.0: …THE TURKEY TROTS. This is the end of Traffic but you’ll get no tears from me. The band had been in a slow state of decline ever since Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory, and Jim Capaldi had been hedging his bets against the imminent and inevitable ennui that eventually overtakes all Steve Winwood enterprises with solo albums that are at least as interesting as this. Winwood had already given his pro tempore rhythm section the cold shoalder, hired Jamaican bassist Rosko Gee, fired Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah and sought a new songwriting partner in Viv Stanshall. The writing was on the wall, and When The Eagle Flies is that writing set to music. Some critics have heard in this album a return to form, others a retreat into formlessness, and I would tell you that any distinction between this and Shoot Out is splitting hairs. Both are pretty good albums from a band that has released some great ones; neither adds one iota to what was accomplished on John Barleycorn and Low Spark. The opening “Something New” and “Walking In The Wind” are succinct songs, yes, but no moreso than “Empty Pages” or “Light Up And Leave Me Alone” and not nearly as memorable. For fans of the band’s extended works, there is also a collaboration with Bonzo Dog Band’s Stanshall inspired by 19th century French poetry, “Dream Gerrard.” But the album dissipates at the end as if the band were literally fading away in its waning minutes. In remastered form and with repeated listenings, When The Eagle Flies isn’t a bad ride at all. There is some experimentation with synthesizers to commend it and exceptional playing from all (Jim Capaldi in particular impresses). What it doesn’t do is soar, and that makes it a disappointing swan song in my eyes.
Kronomyth 9.1: DEAD BAND WALKING. This is the band’s last single (not counting the 1994 reunion), again split into two parts. Unlike the band’s previous two-parters, however, this one just cuts that last two minutes of music from the original version and credits it as an instrumental. Seriously, I’d be hard-pressed to name a stingier artist than Steve Winwood where singles are concerned. Jim Capaldi provides some interesting lyrics for this song, although I’ve yet to untangle it all. The liner notes from his debut album, Oh How We Danced (1972), featured a quatrain that spoke of Hate’s words being lost in the wind, so maybe Capaldi is saying that his ability to change the world around him is equally ineffectual. Musically, it’s not one of Winwood’s best ideas, and stands in sore need of a chorus (think “Vacant Chair”). Still, When The Eagle Flies didn’t have an obvious single on it, and even I would have narrowed it down to this or “Something New” since they’re two of the album’s more accessible tracks. Of minor interest, the 7-inch promotional version released in the US featured the full-length version in stereo, with a mono version of the single edit on the flip side.
Again featuring contributions from Traffic members past and present, Short Cut Draw Blood produced the biggest hit of Jim Capaldi’s career with a discofied version of the old Everlys chestnut, “Love Hurts.” That song is a likeable but light number on an album that finds Capaldi stretching into everything from ska (“Johnny Too Bad”) to Dylanesque poetry (“Keep On Tryin’”). It’s his most stylistically varied album to date, although at its core it retains the percussion-propelled, dark musings of latter-day Traffic (“Goodbye Love,” “Short Cut Draw Blood,” “Boy With A Problem”). His last record was more consistent; this one is more surprising. As a bonus, the non-album single “It’s All Up To You” was included here; an outmoded lovesong that belongs somewhere between the British Invasion and Dave Mason. Short Cut Draw Blood does showcase Jim Capaldi’s range as an artist; the venomous “Living on a Marble” (one of my favorite tracks on here) and ethereal “Seagull” (a mini Traffic reunion of sorts) lie at opposite ends of the musical spectrum. Of interest, Paul Kossoff plays on “Boy With A Problem,” a song written about Chris Wood’s struggles with alcohol that warns “Soon from this earth he will leave,” a warning Kossoff himself might have heeded. I would tell you that this record continues to make a case for Capaldi as the logical heir to Traffic’s legacy, but I say a lot of things in the course of a day and not all of it makes sense. He does seem capable of sustaining a solo career, which, in a world where Ringo reigned supreme, isn’t that surprising (“Love Hurts” was a ploy pulled directly from Ringo’s playbook). All in all, a bloody good record with a few cuts that would make my short list for the cream of Capaldi.
Kronomyth 9.6: MORE HEAVY PRODUCT. United Artists must have spotted a drop of milk glistening on the end of Traffic’s teat, giving it a final tug with More Heavy Traffic before putting the poor thing to pasture. Released a few months after the unexpected, unsuccessful and unnecessary Heavy Traffic, this compilation collects ten tracks from the same period that UA had rights to, up to John Barleycorn Must Die. The album presents the stereo mixes of the early songs (as they had on Best of Traffic years earlier) and takes the unusual step of dividing the album into two halves: the songs of Dave Mason (side one) and those written by Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi (side two). Presented in no particular chronological order, More Heavy Traffic draws heavily from the band’s second album, more than half of which appears here. If you already own that album, count yourself lucky and move on. Personally, I think the inclusion of “Here We Go ‘Round The Mulberry Bush” would have been a kindness, and one of these albums should have included “Glad/Freedom Rider,” but otherwise the pair (Heavy Traffic, More Heavy Traffic) capture the essential early moments and even a few non-essential ones like “Cryin’ To Be Heard.” The absence of anything from Low Spark, however, renders these compilations incomplete from a career perspective. 25 years later, Island did a good job of capturing the best stuff on a single disc (and a lousy job of naming it) with Feelin’ Alright: The Very Best of Traffic. There are also double-disc compilations (Smiling Phases, Gold) that give you a nice bird’s eye view of Traffic from beginning to end.
Kronomyth 1.0: NO HITS, NO NAME, NO WONDER. Often lost and forgotten, Steve Winwood’s first official album was the second ill omen of nineteen hundred and seventy-seven, Peter Gabriel’s hodgepodge of pop and pomp being the other. Rolling Stone’s critics gave Winwood a pass on this one, but you’d have to be pretty mathematically challenged to think six songs and no hits after three years could add up to anything but disappointment. Whatever failings it had, at least Gabriel’s album gave an account of his long exodus from Genesis with “Solsbury Hill.” Anyone looking at Steve Winwood’s album, on the other hand, couldn’t help but notice that most of his old Traffic chums had come along for the ride: Chris Blackwell, Jim Capaldi, Reebop, Viv Stanshall. If it looked like the last Traffic album on paper, it sounded better on plastic. Island hired the rhythm section of Andy Newmark and Willie Weeks to flesh out Winwood’s keyboards and guitar, and the results were slightly more energized and, on songs like “Midland Maniac” and “Vacant Chair,” momentarily tantalizing. Unfortunately, Winwood’s self-editing skills hadn’t improved with time; even the better songs felt two minutes too long. That Steve Winwood could make an album like this was no surprise. That it would take him three years to make it was, in fact, pretty surprising. No doubt the album was recorded and released to keep Steve Winwood from disappearing into the “Whatever Happened To…?” files, yet the album leaves the question of his future as a solo artist unanswered. John Barleycorn was dead; that was clear enough. But would Steve Winwood’s star rise again? Only time would tell. Three years, to be exact, when he released the platinum-selling Arc of a Diver.
Kronomyth 9.5: STUCK IN TRAFFIC. The new millenium apparently has no use for a Steve Winwood solo album. The whole Millenium Collection series was just a misguided attempt by Island/Universal to make some money with budget-priced compilations; not as lame as BMG’s Extended Versions series, mind you, but also well shy of the bar set by Hip-O’s Gold series. This Steve Winwood disc is lamer than most because it does not contain a single Steve Winwood solo recording. Instead, it compiles work from Steve’s pre-solo affiliations: Spencer Davis, Blind Faith and Traffic. In the unlikely event that there exists a person who has purchased every Steve Winwood solo album but owns not a drop of Traffic or Blind Faith, then this album is for them, and its discovery will no doubt be greeted with the epiphany: “Bah, I have wasted my life on fluff and piffle!” The choices here aren’t bad, and might have made a nice introduction to a double-disc Best of Steve Winwood disc, but Island is apparently compilationally challenged where Steve Winwood is concerned, having opted earlier for a fearsome four-disc set that even a fan would find daunting. If you’re looking for a good single-disc compilation of Steve Winwood the solo artist, stick with Chronicles. Those looking for a single-disc summation of Winwood before and after (but oddly absent of) his first solo disc may be interested in 2010’s Revolutions, although I would tell you there’s too much missing from both sides of the story to make Revolutions an interesting spin.