July 1 – The Traffic Album that Made Me a Fan

7/1/70: Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die

Traffic represents, to me, the quintessential turn of the 1970’s band and sound, especially one originating in the U.K. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the release of my favorite album by that band, John Barleycorn Must Die.

Traffic had dissolved after 1968’s eponymous album, with Dave Mason leaving a second time prior to its completion. Steve Winwood joined Blind Faith, and along with Chris Wood took part in Ginger Baker’s Air Force project. Wood and Jim Capaldi also did session work. Early in 1970, Winwood, still only 22 years old, returned to the studio to fulfill a contract obligation with a new solo album. But before it was completed he’d brought in fellow Traffic alumni Wood and Capaldi, and it became a new Traffic album instead, their fourth. This core trio would go on to release three additional albums.


The music on this album was a vehicle for Winwood’s vocals and instrumental work from keyboards to guitar, and the jazz, folk, and progressive rock influence on these sessions gave them plenty of room to spread out. Four of the album’s six songs which make up the original release exceed six minutes, but do not reach the running time of some tracks by their full on prog cousins. John Barleycorn Must Die peaked at number 5 on the Billboard 200 and was certified gold, but surprisingly only reached number 11 in the U.K.

Traffic - 1970 - Nights At The Roundtable - Past Daily: News ...

Dave Lifton, in his 45th anniversary review of the album in Ultimate Classic Rock, notes the similar vibe of the opening track, Glad, to that of jazz great Ramsey Lewis’s 1965 hit The In Crowd, and I can hear it. Glad, Freedom Rider, Empty Pages, and John Barleycorn Must Die are the songs that keep me coming back to this album, but there’s not a weak link. Chris Wood’s reed instruments are a perfect compliment to Winwood’s keyboards and vocals, as well as Capaldi’s percussion, the latter also contributing with four songwriting co-credits. The title track – a traditional British folk tune dating to the 16th century – might be my favorite as it combines all the aforementioned elements. It was covered by many British artists including Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention, and Pentangle. I was unaware until preparing this post that the song is not about a person, but the personification of a type of barley used in brewing beer and whiskey distillation.

Steve Winwood: "I always felt the need to work with the people ...

Showing my age relative to the music I cover as I tend to do, I was a Winwood fan from 1981’s Arc of a Diver onward when I was a kid. But as a youth, though I was familiar with the songs Dear Mr. Fantasy and The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, I was mostly unaware of Traffic until my later teen years. Those were the two songs that got me interested in this band in the late-80’s, but John Barleycorn Must Die was the album that did it for me. It’s a complete package, a great album, and certainly one of my favorites by anyone in 1970.


Side One:

  1. Glad
  2. Freedom Rider
  3. Empty Pages

Side Two:

  1. Stranger to Himself
  2. John Barleycorn (Must Die)
  3. Every Mother’s Son







March 1970 – Bitches Brew: I Like It, Don’t I? Yes. Yes I Do.

3/30/70: Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

When I first began dipping my toe into jazz waters around the age of 19, I went with “safe” choices that even an unlearned, jazz-curious person like me would enjoy, much of which I had heard at least bits of before. You know, the usual suspects: Miles’s Kind of Blue, Brubeck’s Time Out, Ellington at Newport, Monk’s Dream, etc. I kept coming across the title Bitches Brew, reading how its elements of jazz and rock fusion broke down musical barriers, but I didn’t know what that meant. I worked in a jazz-oriented establishment for much of the 1990’s that featured live performances by local and national acts, and slowly my curiosity expanded. One day I finally asked one of my bosses, a knowledgeable jazz fan, his opinion of the album. With a slight grin he responded, “It’s listenable.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but fine, I’d just have to buy a copy and decide for myself.

Miles Davis' Bitches Brew Celebrated with Podcast, Unreleased Live ...

I liked this double album right away, though I couldn’t have told you why. It was unlike anything I’d heard before in jazz or rock. I realize now it was probably due to a combination of the pulsating, somewhat muffled rhythms underlying Davis’s trumpet bursts and delicate piano improvisations by Chick Corea, Larry Young, and Joe Zawinul that it had my attention. I listened again. Gradually I began to appreciate the contributions by fusion guitar master John McLaughlin and soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Pharaoh’s Dance sounds right out of the Dark Continent. The title track which follows puts imagery in my mind of dangerous, deserted early 1970’s New York City streets on top of the tribal rhythms of the opening track. It seems to build upon itself.

Miles Davis “Lost Quintet” : Live in Europe 1969 – Musica ...

Those rhythms. For this album, Davis employed two bassists (Harvey Brooks on one, and Dave Holland on double bass), two to three drummers including Jack DeJohnette from his touring band, two to three electric piano players including Corea, and a percussionist. With some exceptions they all played at the same time. Miles provided his musicians with sketches for them to play whatever they pleased as long as they stayed with Davis’s chosen chord. The opening track of side three, Spanish Key, is one of the funkier ones on the album. Again, the rhythm section pushes intensively while Miles plays on top before an electric piano crescendo brings them together, opening another segment for McLaughlin’s guitar, a little crunchier this time around, then Shorter on alto sax. I listened once again. Finally it dawned on me: This is electric music. Now, I realized this was not a 1950’s piano/bass/drums/saxophone quartet and all, but I didn’t really understand until I stopped comparing it to what relatively little jazz I’d become familiar with. And when I take time to listen to the entire thing, I feel as though I’ve been through something rather intense by the end. As in, worn out.

Download John McLaughlin / Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti ...

Bitches Brew, recorded in August of 1969 and released March 30, 1970, opened some musical doors for me. While I’m no connoisseur of free jazz, I was able to enjoy Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as a result, the latter combining in a very timely way with my emerging interest in spirituality from the East and West. The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire by McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra became favorites in my small but growing jazz collection. Live Grateful Dead recordings became even more fun to listen to, and Zappa’s Hot Rats made its way into the rotation. Lastly, in checking out his previous two “electric” albums, Filles de Kilimanjaro and In a Silent Way, I was able to hear just how far Miles had taken his new direction in such a short period of time. Great artists who can’t get their ideas recorded quickly enough – I cannot imagine what that’s like. If you don’t know this album but are curious, don’t do as I did and dip your toe in. Dive straight into the deep end.


Side One: Pharaoh’s Dance

Side Two: Bitches Brew

Side Three: Spanish Key, John McLaughlin

Side Four: Miles Runs the Voodoo Down, Sanctuary


Miles Davis and the Making of Bitches Brew: Sorcerer’s Brew


Bitches Brew