Listening to the evolution of Traffic over their seven detour-filled, lineup-changing peak years is rather like negotiating auto traffic in any Italian city you care to name: unexpected turns and dead ends sprinkled with sudden glimpses of magic. Though their work reflected the moods and nuances of the era, Traffic liked to push the envelope and expand possibilities. I would argue (contrary to the opinion of that arrogant prick, Robert Christgau) that the band improved with the departure of Dave Mason after the release of their second album. Mason’s contributions seem terribly simplistic and predictable compared to the work of Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi.
Mason always had one foot out the door anyway, as reflected in his signature line, “Seems I’ve got to have a change of scene” in the two-chord yawner “Feeling Alright.” It all worked out in the end, with Mason building a credible solo career and Winwood-Capaldi making the most out of their collaboration. You can hear the possibilities in the first true post-Mason studio album, John Barleycorn Must Die, where we hear the last gasp of the Spencer Davis Winwood mingling with jazz echoes, old folk strains and some exciting woodwind work by Chris Wood.
As usual, there were some personnel changes between John Barleycorn and the next album. The most significant was to lift Jim Capaldi’s ass out from behind the drum kit. A talented lyricist and more-than-capable vocalist, his new presence up front helped minimize the perception that Traffic was Steve Winwood and a bunch of other guys. To replace Capaldi on the skins, Jim Gordon stepped in to take care of the traditional duties and the Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah to add different and (at the time) unique textures to the music.
We hear the results in the opening song, “Hidden Treasure,” a lush tapestry of Levantine and tropical sound imagery enhanced by the novelty of African percussion. As an opening song to an album, “Hidden Treasure” breaks the paradigm; this dreamy, languid piece is hardly your classic album opener of the era, a la “Back in the U. S. S. R.” or “Sympathy for the Devil.”
As if that weren’t enough to shake and shatter your expectations, you can’t even hear the next song begin!
That next song is Traffic’s masterpiece, “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.” The song opens at extreme low volume with the saxophone in prominence and piano playing a simple riff on the lower register; slowly you become more aware of percussion until the song reaches full volume a bit more than a minute into the song. Steve Winwood starts his exceptional vocal also at relatively low volume, not quite center stage yet . . . until he sings the theme line:
“And the thing that you’re hearing is only the sound of the low spark of high-heeled boys.”
What follows is one of the most dramatic and exciting passages in the history of rock music. It is difficult to describe in words how the simple interplay between cleanly pounded straight piano chords and saxophone can produce so much excitement, but it slays me every time they take me there, even though I’ve heard it a thousand times. There’s a lesson here: sometimes the simplest combinations of sound can produce the greatest impact. I call this “The Count Basie Effect.” If you listen to enough Basie, sometimes The Count will have his band swinging and moving and jamming all over the place and at a certain opportune moment, he’ll throw in a single “dink” on the piano and it’s the greatest fucking thing you’ve ever heard.
Back to our masterpiece . . . the drum/percussion combination develops a series of more complex rhythm variations over the life of the song, particularly in the chorus transition and into the long jam that divides the second and third verses. I have to say I find most jams boring and self-indulgent, but this one is both coherent and full of delights. I love the way Steve Winwood’s voice fades via echo effect on his final line and we return to that incredible (but more intense) bridge. All and all, “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” gives you eleven of the best minutes you will ever spend listening to music.
Feeling the need to lighten the mood, the next song is the soulful, playful Capaldi effort, “Light Up or Leave Me Alone.” Winwood lifts his butt from the piano bench to deliver one hot lead solo here. Who needs Dave Mason? It’s a nice piece, but the next track—another Capaldi number—is much better.
The effect of “Rock & Roll Stew” is diminished by the technological progress in music production and distribution. The compact disc fucked everything up by eliminating the need for the listener to get up off his or her ass, go to the turntable and flip the record over to hear the rest of the tracks. That takes a bit of time, creating a brief intermission—and the better producers of the 33 1/3 era took that into consideration when compiling an album. George Martin maximized the impact of “Within You, Without You” by placing it at the start of Side Two; at that position, the slow build-up of sitars and tablas created a magical effect that would have been lost had there been no intermission after “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”
With digital technology, “Rock & Roll Stew” appears immediately after “Light Up or Leave Me Alone,” and we lose that intermission. We’re also annoyed that Traffic put two Capaldi songs back to back when it would have been better to separate them in the track order.
But when you hear “Rock and Roll Stew” after you’ve spent the time to turn the record over to Side 2, Capaldi has been off stage having a smoke or a drink while you fumbled with the vinyl, holding it at its edges so you don’t get your grubby little fingerprints on the grooves. And when the needle touches the vinyl, you still have a couple of seconds to make your tushie comfortable before the much begins. Only then—when you hear the explosive three-chord-and-cymbal opening—do you realize the importance of sides to a record. We experience both completion and progress; it is the beginning of Act Two.
Capaldi really delivers on this homage to the dreary life of the rock-and-roll business traveler, permanently in transit and longing for the comforts of home and woman. “Rock & Roll Stew” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” are the only two Traffic songs to have earned spots on my fuck songs playlists, a rare honor that I bestow to only the most erotically-spiced efforts.
Fucking is important to me, people!
The album closes with two Winwood vocals, “Many a Mile to Freedom” and “Rainmaker.” These are lovely, naturalistic pieces, supported by some sweet flute work in both instances. Both make for pleasant listening, but other than some remarkable percussion work from Rebop on “Rainmaker,” neither track stands out.
The preference for oddly shaped album covers (again, you have to remember that album covers used to be considered artistic efforts) continued with their next album, Shootout at the Fantasy Factory. Although that album is better than the reviews would have you believe, The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys was as difficult an act to follow as Sgt. Pepper. We can thank Traffic that their follow-up work did not include anything as dreadful as “Blue Jay Way.” But most importantly, we can thank them for taking some musical risks on The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, their best and most enduring work.