Sunday, 24 October 2021

John Barleycorn Must Die - Traffic


Provenance: I bought a few albums whilst I was on holiday in Canada, and John Barleycorn Must Die was one of them.

But why this, eh? Did I just reach into the secondhand sales bin like a pier arcade mechanical arm game, scooping up anything within my grasp? No! As regular readers will know, my finely honed sensibilities mean that some discernment went into this selection.

The first of the 'pull' factors is that I remember hearing a version of 'John Barleycorn Must Die' years ago; it's on one of my dad's folk-rock vinyls, though unusually for me I cannot recall whether it's the version by Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention. I could just pick up the phone and ask him now, but nah.

The second thing drawing me to this was that I have been fortunate to see Steve Winwood live, supporting Steely Dan at Wembley Arena. Although he didn't play anything from this platter, I was (and remain) deeply impressed by his performance. Nobody's voice from that era has weathered the years better than his.

Finally, I do possess a version of 'John Barleycorn...' by Traffic on the fantastic Electric Eden Brit-folk compilation. It's not the cut that appears here, but it's one of the most gorgeous, atmospheric takes I've yet to hear, so if this comes close I'll be a very happy punter indeed. 

Review: Why should I bother when altrockchick has written this excellent overview? Not only does she actually analyse the music, she also provides much more background shading than the Swinetunes "uh, I think my dad has a copy of this somewhere?" brand of context. She's got a great taste in music overall - you should probably ditch this blog and migrate to hers, honestly.

However, if my particular viewpoint happens to float your boat (it's all subjective, yeah?), crack on. I confess, my expectations were subverted somewhat by the opener 'Glad' - I was anticipating gentle pastoral folk, and instead I'm treated to some lightly swinging jazz-rock with kicky piano interpolations thrown in for good measure. Nonetheless, in the best traditions of the late 1960s / early 1970s, its multiple sections and careful orchestration signal ambition and no little ability.

Does this album feature some of that weird, breathy jazz flute playing that has almost entirely vanished? Absolutely. Do I like it? Abso-damn-lutely. Flute is one of those instruments I am adamant should be part of rock's firmament (alongside the much-maligned saxophone), and 'Freedom Rider' would form part of my evidence submitted humbly to the jury and m'lud. Just as the era 1967-72 seemed to be a time when folks simply played the shit out of their bass guitars, circa. 1968-75 is also a primo time to hear some major dude wailing on the flute, be it in prog, fusion or soul. 

I am also fully in favour of the piano work on this album. As a novice ivory-botherer myself, who has only really got a grip on the minor pentatonic, I am cheered by the bloody-minded determination to play rolling New Orleans piano irrespective of the track. In this sense, Traffic are like a harbinger of a future to come where Squeeze's former keysman plays boogie over whatever his guests are serving up; John the Baptist to Jools Holland's Jesus Christ. Still, it does add a pleasing cohesion to proceedings - I dig albums that sound like the songs 'belong' with each other, even if they touch upon different styles and genres.

What of the title track then, eh? Well, it ain't quite as magical as the 'first version' that is on Electric Eden but it's still a fine, fine progressive folk testament. Where the 'first version' opts for sparseness, this one is fleshed out with more guitars, percussion and voices and ups the tempo a smidge. One wonders why the joint that ended up on the album was preferred to the earlier stab. There's a good chance that I'm in the minority here anyway, considering some of my other opinions. Regardless, it's a lovely, evocative track, the best thing on here and quite likely one of the better musical allegories about growing and harvesting barley out there (sez I, whose shelves are bulging with barley-related releases).

Solid stuff, then. Nothing here, 'John Barleycorn...' aside, has completely fried my synapses, but there is certainly a time, place and space for this kind of music. Traffic, at least on John Barleycorn Must Die, are certainly better at invoking mood than they are at writing memorable songs. It's pleasant to hear Winwood and co. 'going to church' on tracks like 'Empty Pages' and 'Every Mother's Son', and as per previous, I'll always go to bat for hyperactive rock flute. Always.

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