Steve Winwood - organ, guitar, vocals; Chris Wood - sax, flute, piano, organ, vocals, percussion; Jim Capaldi - drums, percussion, vocals
Following three astonishingly original album releases in the late 1960s, the original four members of Traffic went their separate ways, a mere two years after they began. Traffic's farewell album, Last Exit, which contained the underground hit, "Medicated Goo," would be released in 1969, but by then Steve Winwood was already off to form Blind Faith with ex-Cream guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker. Although this collaboration bore musical fruit, Clapton's lack of commitment frustrated Winwood and Blind Faith would call it quits after only one album and tour. At the dawn of the 1970s, Winwood found himself without a band. Still overflowing with creativity, he began work on his first solo album, with the intention of calling it Mad Shadows. Winwood's musical vision included elements of American R&B, jazz and psychedelic rock but retained a distinctive British flavor. With an undeniable reverence for Ray Charles and a voice just as compelling, he continued blending the same diverse elements that made his songwriting in Traffic so compelling. As the studio sessions progressed, Winwood enlisted his Traffic cohorts, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood, whose contributions resulted in an album destined to become Traffic's most cohesive and focused artistic statement. Released in July of 1970, the John Barleycorn Must Die album would undeniably prove what tremendous composers Winwood and Capaldi had become and was the first Traffic album to attain gold status and would eventually be celebrated as one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
In April of 1970, prior to the release of the John Barleycorn album, Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood unveiled much of this new material before an intimate live audience at the Paris Theater in London. Hosted by legendary DJ, John Peel, who had long championed the group, this now historic performance was captured for the BBC Radio One "In Concert" series. Showcasing much of the new material, as well as a few choice songs from the second and third Traffic LPs, this recording captures the formidable power and instrumental dexterity of the trio lineup of Traffic. Always respected as a keyboard player and vocalist, this show also illuminates what a talented guitar player Winwood had become. Just as impressive is Chris Wood, who changes instruments on nearly every song, performing on piano, organ, sax, flute, and percussion. It is more often than not Chris Wood's multi-instrumentalist contributions that add dimension, diversity and flavor to Winwood and Capaldi's most brilliant compositions.
The performance kicks off with a nod to the past, with "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring," a classic song from the group's second self-titled album. A writing collaboration between Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood, this serves as the perfect introduction for this trio lineup, featuring Winwood on organ and vocals, Capaldi on drums and Wood handling everything else, including electric piano, sax, and percussion. Often Traffic's set opener during this era, this song serves as the perfect warm-up exercise, allowing the group to flex their improvisational muscles before tackling more adventurous material. Following an introduction by John Peel, they continue with similar instrumentation on the first of the new tracks to be performed, "Every Mother's Son." This majestic atmospheric gem would be destined to close the John Barleycorn album and features sensational instrumental contributions from all three musicians and one of Winwood's most impassioned vocals.
The third song of the set, "No Time To Live," aired only during the initial live broadcast, is unfortunately not included. It is speculated that the BBC's recording equipment malfunctioned during this song as it was not included on subsequent transmissions of this performance and appears to only exist from inferior airchecks of the initial broadcast. However, the "Medicated Goo" that follows is terrific, featuring Winwood and Capaldi sharing vocal duties, Winwood now switching to electric guitar and Wood playing the bass part on electronically processed tenor sax. Here the song is more immediate and stripped down compared to its studio counterpart, but it is just as tight and all the more enjoyable for it.
The most intimate moment of the entire set follows with the unveiling of the haunting title track from the forthcoming album, John Barleycorn. With Winwood on acoustic guitar and Capaldi and Wood adding sparse percussion in the form of tambourine and triangle, their interpretation of this traditional English folk ballad is performed with quiet, exquisite perfection.
Before they unveil additional new material, they again return to the second Traffic album with a performance of "Pearly Queen." Here Winwood gets to flex his guitar chops, while Wood takes over on organ (and bass using the organ's foot pedals) and Capaldi returns to his drum kit. This is another remarkable performance that is a dynamic testament to the magical chemistry between these three musicians. John Peel says it best during his post song commentary, where he astutely mentions, "If you are a guitarist and you think you got to go on playing those same old blues riffs at ear-shattering volume, in order to make it, you don't - and that's proof of it."
The remainder of the set is devoted entirely to new material, beginning with the infectious "Empty Pages," played close to the album version, but with a raw live intensity. Chris Wood remains on organ for this number with Winwood switching to electric piano. They again take the opportunity to stretch out a bit, with Winwood and Wood applying their formidable improvisational skills to this bouncy number. With just two keyboards and drums, this features unquestionably odd instrumentation for a rock band, but they deliver an engaging performance that never lacks for instrumentation.
The most breathtaking moments are saved for last, with the public unveiling of the Ray Charles influenced "Glad," paired up with the jazz-rock composition "Freedom Rider." The fact that these now classic compositions were being heard together for the first time is justification for celebration and the performances are truly outstanding. The piano dominated "Glad" is now widely considered to be Winwood's instrumental masterpiece and this early performance of it features Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood trading licks like musicians possessed. Both "Glad" and "Freedom Rider" find the band jamming at an extraordinary level, exploring exciting possibilities within the arrangements.
Much like the John Barleycorn album itself, these performances remain highly compelling nearly four decades later. These three musicians have never sounded more cohesive or inspired as they do right here, cementing the fact that this recording is one of the most outstanding Traffic sets ever captured on tape.