In 1967, Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood, and Dave Mason joined together to form Traffic. At first, they were labeled a psychedelic band. Which they were… on Mondays. On Tuesdays, they were a folk band. Wednesdays they did jazz, Thursdays they got funky, Fridays they rocked out, Saturdays they did folk, and Sundays they went progressive. Occasionally, they’d throw in a bit of world music, blues, and R&B just for good measure. Basically, they were a band that did everything. Their strength was never making it seem discordant. Despite the brevity of their career, they produced some era-defining music. Here are 10 of the best Traffic songs ever released.
10. You Can All Join In
Two albums into their career, Traffic still hadn’t reached any kind of conclusions about who they wanted to be. Were they a rock band? Pop? Or maybe they should go the folk route? Had they been another band, that level of indecision might have spawned some messy results. In their case, it spawned You Can All Join In, a bright, breezy affair that’s impossible to label but still manages to be supremely entertaining.
9. Paper Sun
As Louder Sound says, Paper Sun, the band’s first-ever single, sounds like a lot of other songs that were coming out in 1967 – trippy, dippy, and packed full of sitar. But for all its Summer of Love predictability, there’s still a lot to enjoy here, not least Steve Winwood‘s dazzling R&B-styled vocals. The song proved a hit in the UK, debuting at No. 5 in the charts. For a debut single from a British band, it didn’t do too badly in the US either, peaking at No. 70 on the Cash Box Top 100 chart.
8. Medicated Goo
As wikipedia.org explains, the band’s third album, 1969’s Last Exit, was a cobbled-together affair, comprising largely of leftover studio cuts and live tracks put together by the record label after the band’s initial break up. For a band with Traffic’s potential, it was a huge disappointment… but not one completely without merit. Medicated Goo is a beauty – cut during the recording sessions for the band’s second album, it’s a funkfest, with a bluesy shuffle and some faultless vocals from Winwood.
7. Rock & Roll Stew
By the time of their fourth album in 1971, it was all change for Traffic. Winwood was back in the mix following his summer holiday with Blind Faith, and Jim Gordon, Rebop Kwaku Baah, and Ric Grech had been enlisted to provide some backup to the remaining trio of original members. The album spawned two hits, one of which was Rock & Roll Stew, a slinky, bluesy number that features a rare performance from Jim Capaldi on lead vocals.
6. Freedom Rider
In late 1968, Dave Mason left the band. The following year, Steve Winwood joined the supergroup Blind Faith and the remaining band members resorted to session work. By 1970, Blind Faith had broken up and Winwood had returned to the studio to record what was intended to be his first solo album. But Winwood was used to playing with a band, not by himself. He invited Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi to join him, and pretty soon, his solo album had turned into the fourth Traffic album, albeit one without Mason. Despite receiving a lukewarm reception, the album isn’t without its gems, including this incredibly infectious little jazz number.
5. John Barleycorn
As ultimateclassicrock.com notes, Traffic always had a folk side to them – on John Barleycorn, they let it shine. Based on a traditional English and Scottish folk song, it’s an acoustic beauty, revealing just how good the band could be when they veered away from psychedelia and went back to basics.
4. Empty Pages
John Barleycorn Must Die was the band’s highest-charting album, but it was by no means perfect. The absence of Dave Mason can be felt in the songwriting and Winwood’s vocals, while as impressive as ever, sometimes feel lost in the slightly bloated instrumental sections. But still, it gave us some incredible moments, most notably with Empty Pages, which features some impressive organ from Chris Wood, an infectious chorus, and a jaw-dropping vocal from Winwood.
3. Feelin’ Alright?
After the release of Traffic’s debut album, Dave Mason quit the band. Fortunately, he decided to rejoin them briefly for their second album, with the result that we were treated to this R&B, psych-infused tour de force. Chris Wood does something deeply groovy on a sax, Winwood adds the backing vocals, and Mason takes the lead, delivering a vocal performance that even Winwood would struggle to match. Various artists have since recorded their own renditions, often with better commercial results than Traffic managed. But chart positions aren’t everything, and it’s still the original that’s the definitive version.
2. Dear Mr. Fantasy
Traffic were always a little bit of everything. Soul, funk, blues, prog, psychedelia… you name it, they did it, often all together on the same song. They didn’t always manage to pull it off, but when they did, it was spectacular. Dear Mr. Fantasy wraps up all their musical influences in one neat package. With all four original members in place, the song brims with possibility. Mason would leave soon after, but for that brief moment, Traffic sounded like they could take on the world.
1. The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys
At 11 minutes long, you need some stamina to get through The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys’ titular track. But it’s more than worth it. A jazz-inflected rocker, it features one of the beefiest grooves and chewiest hooks the band ever delivered. Winwood has rarely sounded better, with the rest of the band matching him step for step. After the release of the album, the band unraveled, releasing two more increasingly shambolic albums before finally calling it a day. In a way, this was their last hurrah. You couldn’t have asked for a better one.