Released 1968 on Island
The Seth Man, March 2004ce
The last full-length studio album by the original Traffic quartet comprised of Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood and Dave Mason was entitled as simply “Traffic.” Inside and out such a display of undying confidence, the front cover displaying only a colour portrait of the group with no identifying marks except for what was probably the first cryptic band logo in Rock: a representation of the wheel of fortune spinning widdershins in the direction of life. Which was perfect, as Traffic were a band that comprehended and expressed the rhythms of nature and life through their music reflected by the constant evolution of their sound that allowed for their collective musical expressions to chart their course as each member acted more as plugged-in consorts for their muses within. Meanwhile, the music on “Traffic” bore little resemblance to their previous “Mr. Fantasy” album, although present was the same equal arrangement of each four members taking turns with contributing and stepping out only when the music would benefit. As a result, their group sound expanded and encompassed more and more with each track, incorporating a wide range of styles and multi-leveled personal touches that made it sound like nothing less than a pure distillation of their sum talents. Shedding the ethnic instrumentation, mellotrons and overt psychedelia that were such integral elements of “Mr. Fantasy,” they proceeded to create a successful merger of “Music From Big Pink” agrarianisms rooted in English folk cycles with stripped down arrangements that embraced improvisation easily. And with a far smaller arsenal of instruments, they recorded a sound just as full as their previous array of colourful directions together with Jimmy Miller (a skillful tweaker and producer of vibe) once more at the controls.

The formidable vocals of Steve Winwood are to me the most distinctive element of Traffic because they are so immediately recognisable. And in their glorious Stevie-ness their compelling tones consistently shine through the surrounding musical setting which swirled in and out of idioms galore: whether R&B, jazz, folk and rock, Winwood’s vocals would weirdly never change but would always suit the context perfectly. The vocals on this album were balanced by the returning presence of Dave Mason, who brought back home his languid vocals and wistful sentiments of songs that comprised nearly half the album. Mason was a key component in the Traffic equation and seemed to operate as a wild card that shuttled between Traffic, his own solo albums and sessions (“Traffic” was right after he re-joined and just before he quit for what would be the second of three times.)

The album begins with the Mason sing-along of “You Can All Join In” over whose earth rhythms the importance of improvisation within life’s many levels is stated simply and lyrically. Reined in by brief, staccato fuzz-kazoo toned rhythm guitar over seesawing organ fills it continues evenly with all the paces and universality of a children’s game played since the beginning of time. The delicate features of the introduction of “Pearly Queen” is quickly dashed to the floor with the first appearance of Winwood’s perfectly meted-out vocals as his Hendrixian moves on Stratocaster slash across most of the track and barely contain themselves to the areas relegated for soloing only. The heaviest moment of the album, “Pearly Queen” contains an unbridled jamming force coursing through its instrumental passages. Sweet and gruff harmonicas underline the Mason-penned “Don’t Be Sad” -- although with Mason’s opening sung lines it’s cast in so melancholy a tone as to be nearly self-defeating in its purpose. But Winwood’s soulful handling of the two middle vocal passages buoys it up effortlessly. The album then steps down quietly in both tempo and approach with the organ-led slinkiness of “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring?” Like late-period Stevie-with-Spencer Davis Group accidentally uncovering a slow shuffle beat and therefore entering a weird proto-reggae portal by complete happenstance, it’s an effortless moment of sweetness and light. Dave Mason’s easy-rollin’ ”Feelin’ Alright?” ends side one and for me operates as the link between Spooky Tooth’s “That Was Only Yesterday” and (predating) The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” off their “Let It Bleed” album (which Mason also guested on.) Later the same year, Steve Miller would cop this exact vibe for “Your Saving Grace” but I cannot believe that such an enduring track of immediate post-Altamont hangover was recorded (and re-recorded) months prior to that cultural turning point without a very deep premonition in the songwriter that a major corner was about to be turned. But despite this semi-portent of doom, “Feelin’ Alright?” has the distinct feel of late night fireside of autumn working for it overtime -- like all of “Traffic” does in its entirety.

Although side two becomes darker an hour earlier with each successive track, it begins with the playfully shape-shifting “Vagabond Virgin.” The sole Mason/Capaldi collaboration of the album, it’s a truly beautiful and flowing track as the piano weaves into the acoustic guitar, which in turn is being shored up by the calypso-like, woody percussion which gets overrun by the sinewy bass. Chasing it all along is Chris Wood’s flute playing, which is as impishly satyr-like as his appearance on the album’s front cover. And one by one, each separate instrument is gracefully allowed its place in the mix to quietly shine over this ages old tale of comforting lost innocence. Once passed, gentle acoustic guitar, poignant flute and clusters of percussion crack open the evocative supernatural fairy tale that is “Forty Thousand Headmen.” Winwood’s voice dreamily relays the experiences of a flaneur happening upon a hidden treasure while wandering through a forest accompanied by a thicket of maracas, distantly echoed percussion and flute that quickly whisks from tree to tree to avoid detection. (A subtly different mix of this track was issued earlier in 1968 parenthetically as “(Roamin’ Through The Gloamin’ With) Forty Thousand Headmen” as the B-side to Traffic’s fourth single, “No Face, No Name, No Number.”) One Hammond organ swirl later, Dave Mason’s lightly sung “Crying To Be Heard” erupts into repeated and strident jamming, soon joined by dexterously touched harpsichord keys that combine with Winwood’s steaming Hammond organ lines and Capaldi’s edifice of stridently struck and simple drumming that soon seeps into a jamming tempest with Winwood riffing along vocally with the phrase “carry home.” Ending with a final drum flourish it is directly into the ultra-evocative “No Time To Live” signaled by the cries of a lone alto saxophone baying like a young wounded animal in the damp and ever-darkening wilderness of autumnal dusk. It’s the feeling and a signal of a deep, life-changing revelation about to be unfurled, and when those few piano chords gently play out it always reverberated in my rock’n’roll heart that this may very well have been one of the truly premier hotspots of progressive rock unveiled accidentally several years too soon. And the many various underlying themes and melodies used throughout just this one song could underwrite an entire record of somebody else’s concept album dealing in personal apocalypse and rebirth: especially the part where Winwood’s organ sustains interminably while shored up by piano and tympani to resound with all the darkening cloudscape power of a mellotron. The album ends on a jaunty note much as it began with the up tempo Winwood/Capaldi raver, “Means To An End.”