Often we look back to our adolescent years and cringe at the music we once deemed “cool”. As we age so do our tastes in music. What’s weird for me is all my favorite bands in high school were obscure ‘60s groups. The Small Faces, The Move, Ten Years After. Those were the house bands on my iPod. Though if I had to pick one band that most defined my tastes as a moody, long-haired eighteen-year-old it would have to be Traffic. What drove me to listen to all of Traffic’s discography non-stop from 2006-2008? Why did it mean so much to me? I have no idea, but I can try to figure it out.
First off, I discovered one of my favorite bands in high school by way of one of my favorite bands in junior high, Cream. After Cream dissolved in 1969, insane drummer Ginger Baker and Eric “God” Clapton formed the supergroup Blind Faith. This is where I discovered the lead singer of Blind Faith, a gangly, English, 21-year-old with the voice of a Motown soul singer. I am of course referring to Steve “Higher Love” Winwood.
I enjoyed the Blind Faith record but what really caught my ear was Winwood. His ability as a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter separated him from your average British Invader. His talents were more jazz inspired and few could match his ability to belt out the blues. I was trying to think of who Winwood reminded me of and I think I’ve made up my mind. Steve Winwood is like the white Ray Charles… If Ray Charles wrote songs about gypsies and eagles.
So I put on my time helmet, traveled back to 1967 and fell in love with Winwood and his most notable group, Traffic. Their debut record Mr. Fantasy is a dizzying mishmash of psychedelia, blues, and middle eastern folk. It’s out there and doesn’t always work but when it does it’s fantastic. It was an important album in my life and helped prepare me for today’s album in question.
The self-titled Traffic was released in 1968 and featured a far less psychedelic yet far more accessible batch of songs. Much like the first Traffic album the track listing is evenly divided between guitarist/lead vocalist Dave Mason’s songs and drummer Jim Capaldi and other lead vocalist Steve Winwood’s songs. While Capaldi and Winwood trend more jazz, Mason is a tried-and-true pop songwriter. His most notable contribution being “Feelin’ Alright?” which would go on to be the signature song of Joe Cocker.
If Steve Winwood is underrated then Dave Mason is under-underrated. An accomplished songwriter, Mason’s greatness has always been overshadowed by his proximity to the greatness of others. Such greatness includes; playing 12 string acoustic guitar on Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”, singing backup vocals on “Crosstown Traffic”, playing the Shenai on the Stone’s “Street Fighting Man” and Mellotron on “Factory Girl”. He was almost in Derek & the Dominos, played in the mid-90s version of Fleetwood Mac and even sang a duet with Michael Jackson in 1980. But how many people know his name? Not enough.
Jim Capaldi is another gem in the rough. Playing a variety of percussion instruments in addition to singing and drumming duties, Capaldi was the driving force of the band alongside Winwood. The only other member to play in every version of the ever-shuffling band, Capaldi was probably the best collaborator Winwood ever had.
Chris Wood rounds out the quartet on sax and flute and helped to distinguish the band’s unique jazz and folk sound. Much like Jon Lord made Deep Purple unique for playing the organ in a hard rock band, or Rob Lind playing sax in garage band the Sonics, Chris Wood provided this psychedelic blues outfit another dimension absent from the music of their contemporaries.
But the songs are what make it for me. “Pearly Queen” is like a long-lost Cream song, “Don’t Be Sad” is a soulful sing-a-long that wouldn’t feel out of place in Levon Helm and the Band’s catalog. “Who Knows What Tomorrow Bring” is hella cool. “Feelin’ Alright?” is iconic. The back half of the album brings the folk and the funk. I was amazed how easy it was to fall back into this record.
Why did this band, this album speak to me? I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I like it. It doesn’t seem to trend with most of my musical tastes. It’s an outlier, an enigma. Maybe it’s just good. Whatever the reason it was my first “Classic Album Tuesday” and I’m proud of it.
Favorite Tracks: “Don’t Be Sad,” “No Time to Live,” “Pearly Queen”