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John Barleycorn Must Die (Deluxe Edition)

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Album Review

The second coming of Traffic was heralded by the release of the band's fourth album, John Barleycorn Must Die, in 1970. Traffic had in fact disbanded (as the title of the third album, Last Exit, indicated), but as singer/guitarist/keyboardist Steve Winwood prepared what was intended to be his debut solo album, he brought in former Traffic members Jim Capaldi (vocals, drums) and Chris Wood (flute, saxophone) to the sessions, and somehow the group was re-formed. The music style had changed in the interim, with much more of a turn toward long improvisational jazz-rock, as indicated in the seven-minute opening instrumental, "Glad." But there was also an Old English folk element represented by the traditional title song. The album became Traffic's highest charting disc in the U.S., setting off a four-year run of gold and platinum sellers and successful tours. The tour for the album itself in the fall of 1970 included a couple of dates at the Fillmore East that were taped for a proposed live album that never appeared. This Deluxe Edition reissue of John Barleycorn Must Die includes a second disc that contains that lost live album, along with the first take of the title song and alternate mixes of "Stranger to Himself" and "Every Mother's Son." These studio recordings, as is usually the case, end up demonstrating that the released versions were better, although the run-through of "John Barleycorn (Must Die)," lacking the harmony vocal, is interesting, and the alternate mixes bring out aspects of the group's playing that are less apparent in the standard mixes, so fans should find them a worthwhile listen. The live set, with Traffic augmented by Rick Grech on bass and guitar, finds them mixing songs from John Barleycorn Must Die with similar tunes from Last Exit and the self-titled second album. They explore the jamming possibilities of the newer material particularly on the closing version of "Glad/Freedom Rider" that runs more than 14 minutes. It's understandable that the recording was shelved at the time, but the performances make a good gloss on the original album in this context.


Formed: 1967 in Midlands, England

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '60s, '70s

Though it ultimately must be considered an interim vehicle for singer/songwriter/keyboardist/guitarist Steve Winwood, Traffic was a successful group that followed its own individual course through the rock music scene of the late '60s and early '70s. Beginning in the psychedelic year of 1967 and influenced by the Beatles, the band turned out eclectic pop singles in its native Great Britain, though by the end of its first year of existence it had developed a pop/rock hybrid tied to its unusual instrumentation:...
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