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John Barleycorn Must Die

United Artists 5504
Released: June 1970
Chart Peak: #5
Weeks Charted: 38
Certified Gold: 12/21/70

Chris WoodJim CapaldiSteve Winwood"Glad," the instrumental cut that opens John Barleycorn Must Die, has some glorious piano work by Steve Winwood and some inventive, imaginative sax playing by Chris Wood. It's all so perfect, so exquisite and so dull. "Freedom Rider" is much more like it. Wood's flute and Winwood's piano are both extraordinary, and Jim Capaldi's drumming is fine, very sympathetic, but... if this train is moving, why isn't the scenery changing?

The best cut on the album is probably the title tune, a traditional English ballad arranged by Winwood for acoustic guitar and flute. Winwood's flute is again exceptional, delicate and ornate, and Steve sings the song just right, with an admirable sense of restraint and simplicity. Simple, but it works.

Winwood's two virtuoso cuts, "Stranger To Himself" and "Every Mother's Son," are equally satisfying. Jim Capaldi's lyrics are almost perfect, and Winwood's singing is just stunning, lean and clear. And he is a good virtuoso -- the guitar on "Stranger" and the organ on "Every Mother's Son" are both powerful and moving. But that kind of control-board masturbation can take the music only so far. Steve Winwood may be the best at it that there is, but it still isn't a very rewarding art form.

Traffic - John Barleycorn Must Die
Original album advertising art.
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Perhaps part of the problem is my high expectations of any Traffic album. This is a good album of rock and roll music, featuring the best rock and roll woodwind player anywhere and one of the best singers, and maybe the trio is still just getting together again, feeling each other out. Traffic, after all, was a light-year jump from Mr. Fantasy; maybe the next album will soar again.

- Jon Carroll, Rolling Stone, 9/3/70.

Bonus Reviews!

Winwood. Traffic. Here is some group. There is no better. It is not Cream or Blind Faith. It is not Miles Davis. It is not the Beatles. It is not the Traffic of yore. It is merely the best, the quintessence of what rock is, what it could be. There are no categories. Play with it. There is as much exuberance as you can muster. There is as much joy as a thousand clowns. There is as much music as you can handle.

- Jonathan Eisen, Circus, 9/70.

Traffic (minus Dave Mason) is back and showing a new style mixed in with the old. Electric saxophone, flute, piano, organ, and, electric piano as well as several percussion instruments and drums with the usual guitar are used here to augment the vocals of Steve Winwood and Capaldi on one cut. The musicianship shown by this group will be appreciated by everyone.

- Billboard, 1970.

With Dave Mason gone there's not much electric guitar or songwriting, leaving the chronically indecisive Stev(i)e Winwood to his feckless improvised rock, or is it folksong jazz-based? Not much bass no matter what it is. And Chris Wood blows a lot. C+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

With the departure of Dave Mason, who went solo because of artistic differences with Steve Winwood, the remaining trio sounds a bit adrift in a backlog of old English folk mannerisms. Heavily instrumental in the wake of Mason's departure, the whole affair seems rather pointless, but if you like Chaucerian jams... While the mix tends to get a bit murky on "Every Mother's Son," and there's a trace of hiss here and there, the sound of this CD isn't half bad. C

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Upon the demise of the short-lived supergroup project Blind Faith, Stevie Winwood began work on a solo album entitled Mad Shadows. As the project developed, it evolved into a Traffic reunion of sorts, as Winwood brought in Wood And Capaldi. The result, John Barleycorn Must Die, became an instant success, with its lengthy funky, R&B, jazz, and folk explorations. The playing is top-notch throughout, with |Wood| blowing some inspired sax, Capaldi laying down his trademark fluid percussion grooves, and Winwood's Hammond B3 and piano work in peak form. "Glad," "Freedom Rider," "Empty Pages," and the title cut are the highlights. * * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

John Barleycorn Must Die is an exceptionally cohesive piece, tapping into the acoustic vibe of the time but still offering plenty of bite in "Freedom Rider," "Glad" and the wonderful "Empty Pages." * * * * 1/2

- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Jazz and rock are successfully united on a very eclectic album, ranging from folk ballads to swing jams. Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood made magic with haunting, evocative songs that stretched their boundaries and showed what musical chops they had. Anyone who was there will be brought back to that era with "Glad" and "Freedom Rider" on an obvious classic that's fun to listen to. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

Steve Winwood graduated from teenage soul-singing prodigy with The Spencer Davis Group to chart-riding psychedelic single star with Traffic, whose "Hole In My Shoe" was one of the anthems of 1967. After the demise of supergroup Blind Faith, he returned to his former Traffic bandmates Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood. A proposed solo album, to be called Mad Shadows, became a comeback vehicle for Traffic, who would continue their merry way through to the mid-1970s.

The reduction of pressure after Blind Faith helped Winwood overcome a writing block. Capaldi, his lyricist of choice, also contributed drums, while Wood brought to the mix his facility on sax and flute, the latter adding a pastoral touch to the title track, an adaptation of a traditional folk song about the evils of alcohol. A scorn for all things commercial was conveyed by the opening 13-minute medley of "Glad," a piano-led instrumental, and "Freedom Rider."

A certain amount of overdubbing was needed to produce the album. Winwood carried the triple load of lead vocals, guitar, and piano, but the inevitably spacey arrangements allowed Winwood and pals to "go places within the music that we had never gone before." It all took place in the cottage at Aston Tirrold where the centerfold picture was taken -- the venue where Traffic started a trend among rock groups for "getting it together in the country."

- Michael Heatley, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

After a turbulent year in the spotlight as part of the supergroup Blind Faith, Steve Winwood began 1970 disillusioned with the music business and facing an all-too-common reality: He and Traffic, the band that broke up when Blind Faith come knocking, owed United Artists two more records. The keybordist and singer, then twenty-two, went into the studio right away, composing songs for what he expected would be his first solo album (working title: Mad Shadows). A few songs in, wanting more musical energy than he could generate himself, Winwood asked two of his old cronies from Traffic, drummer and sometime singer-lyricist Jim Capaldi and woodwind player Chris Wood, to stop by. Before long, Traffic was reborn.

John Barleycorn Must Die collects the music the three made during a feverish round of sessions; there are long expanses of jamming punctuated by brief sections featuring Winwood's searing vocals, a template Traffic would use on later works. Barleycorn retains the crusading spirit of the band's first two albums while moving into even more improbable realms -- among them old English balladry (the title cut), jazz-rock fusion (the instrumental "Glad," a most original appropriation of New Orleans-style piano), existential rock ("Empty Pages"), and an introspective shade of soul ("Stranger to Himself").

The band's range is impressive, as is its unconventional instrumentation -- at times Winwood supplies bass on the organ, and is accompanied by just drums and saxophone. Still, the salient characteristic of John Barleycorn, and what separates it from everything else of the day, is its earthy, unpressured feel. The tunes, most written by Winwood and Capaldi, sound like they sprouted during superfriendly jam sessions. Though they're built on strong fundamentals -- old-fashioned verse-chorus discipline -- they're ruled by a marvelous wildness, a sense that the ad-libbed explorations are as important as the hooks. Later, Traffic and others got snarled in brain-cramping attempts at prog-rock wonkery. Here, though, the band sounds utterly grounded. As the grooves percolate effortlessly along, it becomes clear that unity, not any technical skill, is what makes the music levitate.

- Jim Harrington, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

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