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Mr. Fantasy


Last Exit

John Barleycorn Must Die

Welcome to the Canteen

The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys

Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory

On The Road

When the Eagle Flies

Far From Home

The Lineup Card (1967-1994)

Steve Winwood (vocals, guitar, organ) also of the Spencer Davis Group and Blind Faith

Jim Capaldi (drums)

Chris Wood (woodwinds) until 1974

Dave Mason (guitar, vocals) until 1968 also of Fleetwood Mac

Rick Grech (bass) 1971-1972 also of Family and Blind Faith

Reebop Kwaaku Baah (Percussion) 1971-1973

The band toured and recorded with various drummers and bassists, including Derek and the Dominoes' Jim Gordon, but there's too goddamn many to mention.

Part of a newly freaky breed of Brit musicians that grew up on the periphery of the Invasion crowd and had their minds suitably blown by the events of 1966 and 1967 (especially, of course, the release of the most influential album of all time, 1967's seminal There's A Kind Of Hush All Over the World by Peter Noone and Herman's Hermits), Traffic were one of the original 'art rock' bands, folks who took the garage-jamming of early psychedelia and the lyricism of mid-60's folk rock and twisted it 'round to include such tasty ingredients as classical, jazz, country, folk, calliope, Saskatchewan hog hollers, balalaika minimalism, and the guttural braying sound a drunken Scot makes when he realizes he's cut off until he pays his hefty bar tab. Art rock, yeah! That's what we'll call the profanation of good ol' blues and country-based rock 'n' roll music that would take over people's minds like the Pods and make them believe that the goodness of a tune was somehow proportional to the number and difficulty of the chords involved.  The root cause of Keith Emerson's chest hair.  The death of simple, manic, high-school hormone soundtrack music, replaced by this kind of jazzy stew that really only appeals to theory majors, Asimov worshippers, and the snootier sorts of drug fiends.

But hey! Wouldn't rock have sucked if it hadn't been for Sergeant Pepper's and groups like Traffic that followed in their wake? Think about it - instead of sliding along the razor's edge of the envelope with early Pink Floyd and Jefferson Airplane, we'd think that Tommy James and the Shondells was really fucking far out. We'd have to settle for fuzz-tone and minor chords as the be-all and end-all for mind-expanding rock music, and never would we have the musical artillery made possible by a few guys who dug Coltrane and took piano lessons as kids.  The fact that they all later began to act like blissed-out primadonnas and play boring crap for hours on end was more a product of their apathetic and likewise blissed-out audience than because of any true pretension on the part of the artists themselves.  Art-rockers were naturally goofy because of the time and place of their particular heyday, which ranks among the weirdest years of mankind. Their stupid poetry and pop-art worldview was a defense mechanism, not the calculated bombast that made prog-rockers (essentially the logical extrapolation of what art-rockers were doing, made possible by trading out their philosophies for tricked-out instrumental prowess and gobs of technology) so irritating to so many people. 

The problem with defining 'art rock', and art rockers like Traffic is that they were essentially a transition genre to fill the gaps between the pop music of the 60's and the various 'hyphen-rock' sounds of the 1970's.  See, in the late 60's, rock music wasn't as fractionated as it is now, and the only divisions that mattered were the ones between 'conventional' groups and 'underground' ones.  Conventional rock bands, like say the Monkees, Turtles, and our whipping boys Tommy James and the Shondells, got played on AM radio, sold a bunch of singles, appealed to girls, and went on American Bandstand.  'Underground' bands were like Traffic or the Dead...their fanbase was primarily male, they got contracts on weird labels like Elektra, the friendly neighborhood  headshop (or, as Zappa put it, the 'psychedelic dungeons on every corner') was their most reliable sales outlet, if they got played at all it was only on fledgling FM stations manned by stoners with radio voices that were only rivaled by professional golf announcers for their inhuman lethargy. Some bands were fortunate enough to have some crossover success and score a few hit singles, like the Jefferson Airplane, and a select few were so popular they transcended the boundary like it wasn't there (The Beatles come to mind first, as does Jimi Hendrix, but I would also hazard to say the Doors.  That is, unless you consider that they were actually an AM radio band lucky enough to have some underground street cred, a conceit I wouldn't argue against too strongly).  Arty bands like Traffic were very much in the 'underground' at the time, because the only people that sought out their records were people who had already bought into the fact that a whole new world of music existed beyond the Top 40 charts.  I doubt very many people were drawn into this alternate reality because they heard a Traffic song on the radio...this band was, however, one of the very first Album Rock bands who put all of their efforts into creating excellent LP's and for whom singles were an afterthought, if thought of at all.

Traffic themselves were mightily influential for a short time during which they couldn't have been closer to the cutting edge if they'd been the Velvet Underground (fer Chrissakes, don't take that statement literally...all I'm saying is that many people considered them avant garde in 1968 even when they really weren't), when bands like Cream ate out of their hands.  They played in swing time, ran through jazzy chords when the only people doing that were pointy-headed jazzbos and maybe a select few Calfornia bands, played sitars and tamlas, and could even rock out when the going got too rough. Singer Steve Winwood, especially, got quickly thrust into the London cool crowd and was often lusted after as a studio musician.  In fact, Eric Clapton liked he so much he decided to form a separate band with him in 1969 after Cream busted apart, (Blind Faith, in case you aren't into kiddie porn), effectively putting Traffic on ice.  The band reconvened after Blind Faith split back into it's four very different parts, but this time without Mason and his songwriting contributions.  Winwood carried on with the Traffic band for several years, essentially making it a solo venture that happened to include a regularly scheduled bunch of sidemen.  The problem was that all of the good ideas had already been blown, and all Winwood had left in him was some jazzy jamming.  Jam, jam, jam.  The Sixties were dead, Mason was gone, and the band slowly withered up until it finally dissolved in 1974.

Traffic should be considered to be comprised of two very separate entities, the short-lived, fresh-faced psychedelic band of 1967-1969 and the mature, jammy, Winwood-dominated band of the early 70's. In short, the first one was a lot more interesting than the second, and if you want to cut your reading time short and get back to masturbating along to The O.C., log out and have at it.  You've got pretty much the entire story.  In general, Traffic was more genial, lighthearted, and melodic than either its fellow British trippers (Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues) or its San Francisco brethren...secondary composer Dave Mason was too strong of a believer in roots rock and too big a songwriting influence to let Winwood's colder vision take over completely.  Oftentimes what early Traffic was doing simply sounds like what would later be co-opted by Crosby, Stills, and Nash or Fleetwood Mac in the early 70's.  The band never was 'psychedelic' in a noise-rock feed-back drenched freakout way; their solos were concise (on record, at least) and their hooks were more accessible than Courtney Love at a rave.  In fact, sometimes it's hard to even recognize that Traffic was 'psychedelic' at all. Hell, they're about as wacky as Billy Graham with a case of the cramps when compared to the apocalyptic prom dances that  bands like the Airplane and the Dead were putting out at the same time. It's a good example of how sheltered much of British rock society was in the mid-to-late 60's that this band was as shocking as they were.  Hell, maybe they were screaming mimis on stage, but I doubt it...their studio and live albums just don't bear out a particularly earth-shattering band.  Proficient, often pretty, sure...but about as outrageous as Ed Sullivan with an extra shot of starch in his trousers.

Early Traffic's efforts were vitally important to future generations of rockers by showing how easy it was to integrate all this newfound weirdness into 'accessible' rock music and retain a certain level of artistic consistency.  It'd be hard to imagine some of the later crossover acts like Joni Mitchell or even the Police if Traffic hadn't already cleared some of the weeds off the trail some 5 or 10 years before (and smoked it).  I'll go on record and say that the only true virtuoso in this band is Steve Winwood, and that's only when he's singing in his distinctive, highly-blues charged Ray Charles of a voice. Neither Dave Mason nor Stevie were particularly excellent guitar players, Chris Wood isn't any better of a saxophonist than a zillion Chicago or BST members, and drummer Jim Capaldi isn't near the drummer that he should be. Still, the 60's Traffic sound had real potential to be exciting, especially when you compare it to the snail-paced, lifeless quality of many of their psychedelic brothers (rd: Mason-era Pink Floyd. 

Later Traffic, well, they're about as likely to influence a bedbug to run for the Presidency as they are for someone to start a band, but then again I guess there are brand new revisionist jam bands coming along every day who want to be able to thank someone other than the Grateful Dead for their existence.  The latter-day band had an often-interesting sound and was professional as all get-out, but only had a new idea about once every other studio album and had lost just about every last bit of the pop-sense that had made the early band such a viable proposition.  They're also as boring as all get-out, because after the high wears off, Hey! none of them was particularly excellent on their instruments after all! Compared to real jazz-rockers like Mahavishnu Orchestra or Weather Report, or prog rockers like Yes, Traffic sounded downright pedestrian (hardy har har!!!) and since the singer-songwriter and lite-rock movements had evolved into using a lot of their pop-plus commericalism anyway, you could easily go elsewhere for cool-sounding R&B vocalists. Sheeeit, by 1973 Steely Dan had come along and pretty much trumped them on each and every side, pop, jazz, psychedelia, quirky instrumentation...the works.  Say goodnight, Stevie. After his 1969 departure, Dave Mason had one of those lukewarm-successful 70's solo careers that never seems to capture my attention before falling out of view in the 1980's and (eech!) joining Fleetwood Mac as Lindsay Buckingham's replacement in the mid-90's. Steve Winwood went onto Eric Clapton-style video-enhanced success in the Ecchy 80's with a series of photogenic soul-influenced cuts, and the band later staged an early-90's comeback album and tour opening for the Grateful Dead near the homestretch of the Long, Strange Trip, and have just this year been inexplicably inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame even though neither the Stooges, Alice Cooper, or Roxy Music have gotten in yet. 

I've probably inadvertently overstated Traffic's influence on the record-buying public in this here intro.  Most people on the street couldn't name a Traffic song if you spotted them an 'eelin' and an 'Alright', and history hasn't been as particularly kind to them as it has, say, the Moody Blues, who were six times as corny and only about half as good.  Still, it's hard to really respect a band whose output contains quite as much boring crap as Traffic's does.  I didn't even start buying their stuff until long after I'd gotten, say, all of the ELP albums, and later sold it all back in a flurry of near-eviction fundraising.  Personally, I'm still about as convinced by them as I am by Cream, who I find seriously overrated in comparison to their recorded output, which is about as consistent and well-executed as an Italian army maneuver. But c'mon, I'm not here to love each and every band I review...I'm just here to review each and every band.

Mr. Fantasy - Polygram 1967

Feel the youth.  Traffic sound to be about 19 years old on their debut, a jazzy, druggy romp that makes Donovan sound like Black Sabbath.  They're quite obviously very enamored by the weak-ass LSD that began flooding London in early 1967, as every song name-drops drug influences or drug-influenced influences like there they were trying to buy the world a toke and that fat-ass from (INSERT SINGER OF 'ALLSTAR' HERE) isn't invited.  It's not like they dwell on the philosphy of it all or anything...they're nobody's Timothy Learys.  Their interest lies in emulating the goodtimey jaunt that marks a good high with some good friends and good music, and in this they succeed.  See, they're young and they're big ol' music fans, and they've not yet had the time to become cynical, grumpy old 20-something fartknockers like they soon would. They're so darned excited to be playing for everyone they decide to take a stab at all the different musical influences they can think of, which ranges from jazz-influenced rock ('Heaven Is In Your Mind'...see with these drug lyrics, yeah?!??)  to jazzy dancehall softshoe like what the Stones put on Between the Buttons ('Berkshire Poppies') to fairy-tale whimsy both sunny ('House for Everyone') and depressive ('Hope I Never Me There') to gorgeous croony balladry ('No Face, No Name, and No Number') to deliberate hard rock ('Dear Mr. Fantasy') to middlebrow classical rock ('Dealer', which sounds a helluva lot like the Moodies),  to George Harrison sitar-molestation ('Utterly Simple') to straight-up soul/gospel rock ('Coloured Rain').  And fuck me dry and call me 'Lilo and Stitch', but there's also a honest-to-excrement tape splice jazz-jam like Frank Zappa would have done for thirty seconds somewhere in the middle of Uncle Meat. And believe me, while they may be trying to emulate Sergeant Pepper's infectious sprawl, there's a few times in which their enthusiastic disciple-dom becomes sheer emulation.  They include unnecessary sound effects like the winding clock on 'House For Everyone' (and I could've sworn I heard buzzing locusts in the background of the title track) that just scream out 'I listened to Peppers 28 times is a row without a bathroom break!' and the sitar interlude has exactly the same effect at 'Within You, Without You' on that same sucks so hard I feel my soul being torn from the mass of nerve endings at the base of my spine.  Traffic isn't savvy or well-produced enough to pull off the mini-Pepper thing successfully, though.  There ain't even a shred of concept here, and the sequencing is haphazard enough to place nearly all the good songs in the middle, so you're good and bored by the end instead of being charged up by the 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band (Reprise)/Day In the Life' climax that is so much better than anything else on that record. 

 Hell, maybe they weren't trying for Pepper II like I'm saying, but at times they actually get close to achieving it.  There's a sequence of tracks beginning with 'No Face, No Name, No Panties' and continuing through 'Dealer' that is as good as anything by anybody in 1967.  'No Face' is simply Winwood showing off his impossibly well-groomed soul voice, aching his way through a slow crescendo that peaks with some notes that would kill that poseur from Procul Harum straight out (okay, Brooker's not really a poseur, but put him next to Winwood and he looks like an overemotive punk).  It's only about as complicated as a Tic-Tac-Toe competition opposite Anna Nicole Smith, but hell, I'm man enough to admit a gorgeous harpsicord/flute/Mellotron melody when I hear one. 'Dear Mr. Fantasy', probably the groups second most famous song, is also based on a maximum of three chords strummed folkily over and over, but this time we're locked in a paranoid mindblow of an acid-rock tune, more boogie than otherwise, with such classic late-Sixties terminalisms like 'don't be sad if it was a straight mind you had, we wouldn't have got to know you all these years' and jamming that comes straight from the gutbucket freakout school of all feeling and no temprance.  Mason's 'Dealer' is busier and more stylistically out's fast like a shuffle, but features hyper percussion, classical flute parts and Latino guitar flourishes like War crossed with 'Eleanor Rigby'. It's all as over as soon as it begins, but this peak is higher than a lot of bands are able to slap together over a few decades...Traffic achieved it on their debut.

 The remaining tracks (i.e., the beginning and ending) aren't shite, but they aren't nearly as weighty as that killer mid-section.  The opening teems with good-natured jazz-tinged psychedelia of the jolly Hobbits-and-dandelions nature, but never seems to coalesce into memorable tunes.  The pair of songs following the pointless 'Utterly Simple' and before the bebop hipster flunk-out of 'Giving to You' are better, but still lack a unifying hook or vocal inflection to make them more than just 'jazzy tidbits' that showcase the band's innovative style and their playing ability but only a splinter about why we should care. Mr. Fantasy works fairly well as a whole, but by the end Mason's weirdness begins to grate and the jazziness begins to feel a tad pointless. I always have a nice feeling after listening, though, very unlike some of the more poisonous albums of the psychedelic era.  This is one record that actually makes visiting the heaven in my mind sound like fun.

Capn's Final Word: Peaks way too early, but the peak is one hefty psychedelic skyscraper indeed.  Just some good ol' fashioned lysergic fun, is what if they like Sergeant Pepper's too?


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Vladimir Mihajlovic   Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: A masterpiece.I enjoy this one much more than the second album.Simply here everything works.The album has the similar feeling to Sgt.Pepper,but it is a piece of art on its own rather than a ripp off.It is certainly very original album. The Dealer is probably my favourite track,although it's hard to decide.


steve nunz     Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: Dealer's written by Capaldi, not Mason.


Traffic - Polygram 1968

Heh...Dave Mason was fired after the completion of Mr. Fantasy but was rehired again when they couldn't find a replacement in time for their second album, the roots-steeped fusoid Traffic.  Shades of George Steinbrenner, eh? The band don't sound like they're holding any grudges, though, as this is easily the most effortless and fun record of their career.  Moreover, apparently they really were up shit creek without an air freshener when they decided to rehire Mason, because without his input, this album probably would've been an EP.  This is Mason's masterpiece...his tunes dominate, good and bad, and the voice that seemed a bit too fractured on Fantasy comes out strong and compelling here.  As true-blue psychedelia of the Fraggle Rock-kind was already becoming outdated by 1968, Traffic begin to reexplore their R&B roots here, and end up with an easy-rolling collection of genial swing-y tunes that prefigure both Eric Clapton's early post-Cream output and Joe Cocker's soul-party sloppiness.  They almost sound like they're guesting on a cross between Blonde on Blonde, Psychedelic Shack, and a random Buffalo Springfield album of your choice, and it all means that this album is easily enjoyable although there's a lightweight quality to a lot of the songs that belies a lack of real ideas.  I guess you could argue that the groovin' is the idea, but if that's the case, Traffic sure skipped over a lot of interesting ground to get to this point.  Sheeit, man, sometimes this stuff is so funky it sounds like a fucking Eric Burdon and War album ('Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring').  This from the folks who sounded about whiter than Miracle Whip on the last album are now bopping like the Family Stone? Weird.

 Songwise, I say the spirited, groovy stuff far exceeds the slower, more ruminative material on the second side almost without exception.  There's nary a duffer among the entire first side, including Mason's finger-popping 'You Can All Join In', the explosive blues-rocker 'Pearly Queen', which is probably the most Cream thing the band ever did, the rollin' Crosby, Stills, and Nash-y country-rock ballad 'Don't Be Sad', and the bitterweet drunken raveup that is Mason's classic 'Feelin' Alright', which was soon covered by Joe Cocker in a version that captured all of its raucous spirit but not a damn bit of its self-loathing.  Even when the second side needs some tempering, along comes the snazzy, funky 'Means To An End' to kick out the cobwebs and make the regulars lift their beers in sloppy singalong. 

As long as their party-down get wet/get funky attitude prevails, this album's tasty like Mary Tyler Moore's mid-60's torpedo tits, but when the wandrin' spirit get's to 'em, things rather quickly turn into a boring Rennaissance festival of a festering, shitty mess.  The folkies begin to make their inroads with this album, and the seeds of future boredom are sowed right here on the second side of Traffic. Yup, most of this band's problems with dullitude can be traced back to 'Vagabond Virgin', a longwinded folkie interlude that would've been done a zillion times better by the Incredible String Band, and 'No Time to Live', an overbaked tray of Stevie Winwood cheese that sounds like 'People Who Need People' with the organ turned up loud. The folkie rumination 'Forty Thousand Headmen' is much more like it, it's still jazzy-folk, but the pulse never drops and the foggy dread of the lyrics is a fever-dream of illustrious perfection.  

I guess I respect albums like Traffic, though I don't really love them.  They segregate everything 'meaningful' into little folkie concentration camps on the second side, and the rest is all left to wander free in a big jokey romp.  Okay, maybe it's not that simple...'Forty Thousand Headmen' is a pretty convincing folkie ballad, and 'Feelin' Alright' sure doesn't sound all that much 'uplifting' other than on a Rebecca Romijn-shallow level. Also, nowhere else am I as convinced by this band on a musical level - Mason has improved to a darned fluid soloist of a sub-Clapton level ('You Can All Join In' has some excellent leads) and if the rhythm section ever begins to meander, I don't much notice it.  I wouldn't call these rockers 'rock solid', not when these guys are as obviously sloshed and/or altered as they seem, but that's the whole charm of this entire genre of 'drunken Brit-rock' that came about around this time.  The disturbing thing is, they aren't even really trying here, and you can tell they're already dogging it a bit in favor of dull, formulaic jazzy folk that would later be their poison.  For now, though, we have a reprieve in the form of a rapidly improving lead guitarist.  Dave Mason was precisely the energized, inspired songwriting mercenary they needed to replace, erm...Dave Mason.

Capn's Final Word: The good songs are all silly, sloppy roots-rockers, and the 'good' music is dull folk. Guess who is responsible for each one? Give you two guesses.

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Alan Brooks   Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: Exactly! Mary Tyler Moore's mid '60s torpedo tits! Maybe because I tripped with Ellis Dee in Minneapolis, 1977.


Last Exit - Polygram 1969

Ungh...this is a lame record company leftovers collection rushed out after Winwood dissolved the band to go and spend a quality couple of months in Blind Faith.  Just the words I want to hear, huh?  Just feel the excitement build as the record executives cluelessly mix singles, live cuts, and various shit outtakes (shittakes? Like the mushrooms? Are they actually made out of old Traffic acetates?) into a package that satisfying only if you've been spending the last dozen years or so listening to Cher albums or something. The album is 35 minutes long and sounds almost three times that long.  The first section is made up of three singles, most wonderfully the thoroughly enjoyable Temptations-y soul-rocker 'Medicated Goo', wherein Traffic make like the motherfuckin' MG's.  The other two include the icky folky Mason-sung 'Just For You', which sounds like a Syd Barrett tune backed by the Moody Blues and  'Shanghai Noodle Factory', a lazy and longwinded fusion of the Traffic-era band's good-timey R&B side and their folky side,  and are worth hearing once or twice, but not much else here is.  The instrumental  'Something's Got A Hold of My Toe' pretty much defines 'unfinished demo', being only instrumental because they hadn't had time to lay words on it yet, not because it's torn from the same cloth as 'Walk, Don't Run' or something. By 'Withering Tree', with it's inimitable refrain of 'Into the arms of ETERNIT-EE!!!', which will come back to haunt you once you're a few minutes into the second side of this heap.

 The live cuts on Side 2, two songs I've never heard of (and whatever you do, don't mistake 'Feelin' Good' with 'Feelin' Alright'...never have two songs been so closely named and no far apart in nature, unless you want to count 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' and 'Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue', and I'd rather not), are some of these worst live performances by a 'major' rock band I've ever heard put to tape.  Recorded after Mason's second departure yet before Winwood called it a day, this 'lineup' features Winwood on organ, Wood on sax, and Capaldi on drums.  Like a power trio (I originally wrote 'power trip', which probably isn't too far off), except without the power.  Or the songs.  Or the solos. Or much else...there's more silence here than anything musical, and lemme tell you, that silence is by God the very best part.  These songs are endlessy mid-tempo meanderings over which Winwood caterwauls like there ain't a tonal center in sight, with the horrendously overloud organ and Wood's sad sax trading off stabs underneath in a vain attempt to create something even resembling music.  For all their avant-incompetent flailing, nothing fills the spaces so we're left with Swiss Cheese jams that feature neither interesting solos nor melodies nor harmonies. The solos don't happen because everyone's concerned with keeping something resembling the chord sequence going (Winwood is stomping away at his bass pedals most of the time), the harmonies don't happen because there's only one chordal instrument playing, and the melodies don't happen because, well, apparently these songs done left 'em in their other pants.  Don't look for help from Capaldi, either...he seems to think he can help out by 'riding' his ride cymbal like it's a melodic instrument, and when he doesn't he sounds like Carl Palmer with two appendages chopped off. Yikes. One listen to the stoned-out, despondent stage comments from Winwood clinch it...they were having less fun than we are.  But let me please remind you, gentle friends, that they got paid for it.

 I guess I can't go much lower than a C for something that has 'Medicated Goo' on it, but there are definitely some sections that have me thinking F.  And let's all bow our heads and reflect on the awesome levels of unmitigated evil capable of a record executive in charge of a band's master tapes. 

 Capn's Final Word: Quite literally singles 'n' other old bullshit. Burn, Polygram, burn!

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steve nunz     Your Rating: C
Any Short Comments?: Feelin' Good, one of the live tracks, is actually a song from a British musical called "The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd" by Anthony Newley (same guy that wrote "Candy Man").  Just goes to show that Winwood's not as cool as he'd like us to think.  (Though he might have originally heard Nina Simone's version of it.)


John Barleycorn Must Die - Island 1970

Following the quick but not completely puzzling demise of Blind Faith, (Which should serve as a lesson to all of us...a band with Ginger Baker in it is doomed to a quick failure! Just look at Public Image Limited! Beware the Red Headed One Bearing Sticks! He's the one that looks like Eric Scholtz in Mask except uglier!) Steve Winwood temporarily found himself without a band, so he took to the writing and recording of John Barleycorn Must Die all by his lonesome.  Apparently the man did almost everything on the album before inviting back Capaldi and Wood to make minor contributions and slap the Traffic label on it for Added Commercial Punch.  The thing to remember is that in 1970, Traffic had been almost two years dead by then, and Dave Mason was for sure gone for good. So I suppose the Return of Traffic was a big deal, though I have a hard time seeing why exactly.  Anyway, this is Winwood's 'masterwork', an album that is consistently given wicked high ratings by professional critics who are paid for their work, given free records and concert tickets, and still find enough malice in their hearts to spend most of their time grinding their axes for their next hatchet job instead of giving a good, honest opinion from a  music fan's point of view.  So fuck the critics...they must've all been given a dimebag of weed to celebrate the release of  John Barleycorn Must Die to give it such an insane critical blowjob treatment like it got.  Listen, Winwood's a talented dude at his peak here...he sings like a smoother Ray Charles, plays piano and organ almost like Nicky Hopkins (the best rock pianist ever, I say), and even can rip off a serviceable guitar lead once in awhile.  But he's just not much for writing great, or even good songs.  For one thing, the majority of John Barleycorn's tracks aren't really structured  songs anyway, they're jams.  Each song outside the title track features a good bit of instrumental doodling, and 'Glad' is a full-blown instrumental.  Winwood just isn't all that interested in lyrics in general, mostly leaving them to Capaldi to dash off.  And dash off he does, at least when his brain has the horsepower to spit a few out. This is a band who released not one but two songs about writer's block within just a couple of years ('Empty Pages' and 'Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired', just so's ya know. Okay, so 'Uninspired' is mostly about self-help, but the whiny section at the beginning sure sounds heartfelt to me...), so the shift towards extended jamming was probably a prime career move at this point.  Weirdly enough, the jams aren't even that lengthy, they just sound that way. The heads are mostly simplistic, the chord work rudimentary (but 'jazzy'! Jazzier than Linda Ronstadt's Love Canal, if you 'Stone' my 'Poneys', and I think you do), and while the resulting sound is pleasant, it's shallow and all right there on the surface.  As for the solos, repetition and obvious use of a 'lick toolbox' marks Wood's sax and flute work, and Winwood's jovial keyboard soloing  hardly makes up for the lack of any true musical prowess now that Mason's lead guitar is a thing of the past.  The lackadaisical flute and organ solos in 'Freedom Rider' are especially lame.

I guess Barleycorn scores as high as it does for three reasons - one, I'm convinced that the cover of the bloody trad-folk title track is a brilliant piece of work that should be remembered long after crap like 'Empty Pages' gets tossed down the crapper of history (hasn't it already?), secondly, I got hit in the back of the head with a gardening shovel a couple of weeks back and I still see spots the size of beachballs in front of my eyes.  Lastly, the sum is greater than the total of wait. The parts sum the... No.  Dammit. Some of the pa... Goddamn it, I like it in spite of itself.  Nothing here truly sucks when viewed as a whole, and only when I really listen closely do I notice that the singing on 'Stranger to Himself' is uglier than Nicole Ritchie without half a ton of face-spackle on, or that 'Every Mother's Son' cops it's guitar tone from the Airplane and lead melody from Dylan, or that 'Empty Pages' is a limp copout of a song about not having enough imagination to write a song.  All of this indicates to me that Winwood is primarily a performer, and isn't much of a writer, and his two pals in Traffic sure aren't ready to help out much.  And this reminds me that we still have three more Traffic albums with nobody but Winwood as a primary songwriter and Capaldi as lyricist.  From that perspective, I'd take the general enjoyability and competence of John Barleycorn over what's coming next if it's latter-day Traffic I'm looking for.  I really doubt they'll be getting much better in the future.

Capn's Final Word: Winwood's blueprint for the future looks awful sketchy...some good decisions and a unifying groove keep this tower of cards from falling.

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Vladimir Mihajlovic   Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: Excellent album.Steve Winwood's masterpiece.But we shouldn't understate the contributions of other two members.There is some great flute playing by Wood on Freedom rider which might be the best track here.Capaldi's drumming adds a lot to the overall sound of the record.I really love this album.That Steve Winwood surely knows how to play his instruments.An amazing keyboard player and guitarist.

Welcome to the Canteen - Island 1971

Wow, the best Traffic album of them all is a live album stuck at the ass end of their good period? Shocked me too, but if there's one place to get every last smidgeon of Traffic goodness, you've gotta leave those low-cal studio albums behind and grab this little bit of contract-breaking live lusciousness that is about as far away from their previous live release, that rat-snot second side of Last Exit, as possible.  On that album they were reduced to a trio that couldn't even keep the pulse going. Here they're a septet including not less than three drummers, including former Domino Jack Gordon and a non-European percussionist with a name a mile long (and is usually shortened to 'Rebop')  As added surprise, these songs were gathered from live sets that included Dave Mason as a guest musican, in addition to Winwood, Wood, and bassist Rick Grech.  The Traffic sound is fuller than I ever thought possible - I'm a big fan of percussion and multiple drummers (I think drum soloing should be relegated to extremely intricate fills, like what we've got here, or what, say, Tony Williams does.) and Gordon adds the rock pulse that was always lacking from the rest of the Traffic catalogue. The bass work by Grech shows that there's no way stomping on organ pedals can substitute for a real live four-banger in full amplification, and both Winwood and Wood perform at career peaks now that they can concentrate on what they do best rather than attempt to make two hands and two lips sound like an entire band. (Goddamn it! I know you're thinking about that fucking Morphine band...if there was a bigger bunch of overhyped, slimy, lounge-rat, no-talent, repetitive, rock-hating junkie cooler-than-thous than Morphine, it's Urge Overkill.  And both bands suck the burrito right out of my bowels.)  '40,000 Headmen' is a percussive revelation, tougher and more focused than even the studio version on Traffic...and even a heavier atmosphere. Mason contributes two decent songs from his recent solo album, 'Sad And Deep As You' and 'Shouldn't Have Took More than You Gave'.  'Sad and Deep' is an acoustic track that cops heavily from the Who's 'Behind Blue Eyes', which probably cops from some old British folksinger anyway, so who cares? It's a completely different song than 'Eyes', a tired, melancholy ballad that creates quite a mood coming right before 'Headmen'. 'Shouldn't Have Took' generally shows off his rough and ready guitar skills that have been so sadly lacking since he left. 

Side two explores the jamming sister fanny side of Traffic's persona with two lengthy extrapolations, one of 'Dear Mr. Fantasy' and the other of Winwood's Spencer Davis Group hit 'Gimme Some Lovin'.  'Lovin' is the worst track on the album, reducing this soul-party anthem to a percussion hoedown featuring Grech's woefully unimaginative bassline, one that probably repeats the same four notes some several thousand times...and wasn't even in the original tune, goddamn it! 'Lovin' should be short, wild-ass, and fast, not stretched out thin with a drumset rolling pin like the one here.  Now, 'Fantasy', on the other hand, is fully realised here.  The verse sections are performed faithfully and with plenty of guitar interplay, though unfortunately, Winwood's vocals are recorded all shitty, like the microphone was being waves around in his general direction rather than directly in front of the man's face.  But who cares about the verses when Dave Mason rips out his Clapton/Robbie Robertson hybrid soloing style with true ferocity.  The solos build and  fall, then rise again to a marvelous peak, egged on by some gloriously irresponsible drum-fills, and not once do I begin to notice that the song has stretched longer than 10 minutes. There's more feeling and blazing heat in the few minutes of the 'Fantasy' outro than in the remainder of it's Seventies output combined, and it's not an accident that Mason was involved...they should've begged this guy to come back to the band again, and it was their major failing that he didn't. Traffic were an extremely capable live band with some great live material, at least for a certain period, and it worked best when that stage is filled up to the brim. 

Capn's Final Word: Rocks.  Indeed, used in connection with the group Traffic. Live, frenetic, blistering, fascinating and it rocks.

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stve nunz     Your Rating: C-
Any Short Comments?: Are you kidding?  This album blows.  It sounds as if it it were recorded while the guys were splunking in an underground cavern.  Mason's contributions are fairly forgettable (particulalry the maudlin "Crap and Sleep") and his guitar playing makes Winwood sound like a virtuoso (which he IS NOT).  Wood's playing on 40,000 Headmen is out of tune and meanders all over the place--indicating why he needed to overdub himself three or four times on every studio solo.  And if all that wasn't bad enough, we have to put up with that Reebok or Beebop guy who can never seem to figure out when a song is finished.  Medicated Goo is good, though.


The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys - Island 1971

Though their live show could still be a blast, their studio albums quickly became a bore.  Low Spark is, again, shorter in total running time than most records I can think of outside the Ramones and the Beach Boys, but seems to last just a couple of ticks shorter than eternity.  This is also finally a 'Traffic' album, with instrumental and compositional input by the band as a whole instead of just Winwood, though I'm sure Stevie's in charge of pounding together most of the melodies, meaning had to stop hoovering coke for at least five whole minutes to get his work done.  Heh, just kidding...there's actually a couple of pretty good lines here.  Since they retain Gordon and Grech from the touring band, there are now songs by Winwood/Capaldi, Capaldi himself ('Light Up or Leave Me Alone'), and Gordon/Grech (the horrendous basic rocker 'Rock 'n' Roll Stew'). Usually I welcome more songwirters in a band, but unlike with vaginal secretions, in this case more is not necessarily better.  There's only six songs here altogether, and if you count out 'Stew' as the steaming pile of shit that it is, there's really only about 20 minutes of halfway acceptable composed music on this album...the rest is taken up by the title track's extended jams.  And of course I'm not counting out the repetitive instrumental sections that fill out two of these songs to more than 7 minutes.  All told, less writing means more sucking, since besides a few decent lines out of Wood, I wouldn't say that the improvisation here reaches the level of competence at all

Strangely, the lyric writing is vastly improved...the title track is even memorable. (Call the President! Notify academic and military leadership! Scramble the bombers! Start beheading Republicans in Times Square. The end is near!) 'The percent that you're paying is too high a price while you're living beyond all your means, and the man in the suit has just bought a new suit from the profit he's made on your dreams... It wasn't the bullet that laid him to was the low spark of high-heeled boys' is the clincher line in a very bitter tirade about the music industry, such as the pus-sucking demonspawn that selected the tracks for the Last Exit album. But two minutes of great lyrics come prepackaged in nearly 12 minutes of snoozy, jazzy noodling, including a lengthy guitar solo featuring one of the least appealing guitar tones since a mid-80's Bowie album.  The fact that the backing to the solos consists of nothing more than the same two chords banged over and over again in a marginally swinging manner doesn't heal the wounds, either....and this is the best song on the album.

Winwood/Capaldi's 'Hidden Treasure' sounds like a mixbreed of '40,000 Headmen' and 'Glad', and is essentially empty balladry that we've heard done better before. 'Many A Mile to Freedom' is weak soft rock that may have been acceptable at 3 minutes or less but is rendered into Uzbek Rusty Spoon Eyesocket Torture by being allowed to last for an obscene 7+ minutes. 'Rainmaker' isn't too far different than 'Hidden Treasure', but again lasts for a godawful long time for a song as quiet and so lacking in ideas as this one.  Have these people not heard of a bridge? Multipart songs?  They essentially play two-bar riff tunes, which might be fine if they played like the Stones, but jazzy dudes have to be able to come up with a helluva lot more to fill the time than comp the same chords until the tape runs out.  That's latter-day Traffic's main difficulty...they simply don't fill the air with their music.  They're too quiet, too simplistic, and too slow.  I wouldn't even say 'Rainmaker' is very pretty, not with the overloud electric guitar over there in the left's just a mishmash.

I guess the final verdict for Blow Chunks on Well-Hung Boys is that all of the creeping suspicions I had on the last album have come to a sick fruition. I mean, come on...these guys don't even solo all that well...they're simply filling time, is all.  How am I able to trust that? Go buy a goddamned Miles Davis record instead.

Capn's Final Word: Winwood succumbs to all of his worst tendencies.  Come back Dave Mason, all is forgiven!

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Eric  esweenor (at)   Your Rating: C+
Any Short Comments?: You mean mid-80's Bowie albums had GUITARS?! Well, not after Let's Dance at least.  This album's pleasant enough, but I gots to go pick up Welcome to the Canteen.  Thanks again, cap'n, for spending more of my money.

Alan Brooks   Your Rating: B
Any Short Comments?: This is decent easy-listening 'jazz' rock 'n' roll to me. I use it as background music. No song is offensive (to me, anyway).  It is soothing, relaxing, music to sit on the toilet and defecate to.


steve nunz     Your Rating: B
Any Short Comments?: The reason the guitar sound bugs you so much on the title track is because it's not a guitar at all.  It's Winwood's B3, run through a distortion box.  Call me crazy, but I suspect that this was an afterthought--at the beginning of each of these solos, you can start to hear Chris Wood begin to tunelessly noodle.  Then he's quickly faded out of the mix and replaced by the organ.  Probably an example of Winwood trying to salvage the track.  (Which I gotta admit I like--it's the only song I listen to on the album.)

Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory - Island 1973.

Okay, so they've sold out the last thing that even made them distinctive...their jazzy groove. Now they're just dreadfully slow adult contemporary jammers, stretching even the most trite introduction sequence into several minutes of dental surgery, just praying that one of them will catch a stroke of inspiration and play something that doesn't sound ripped off from the last two albums. Surprise! It never happens! But at least the jamming and comping keeps us away from the *yaiii!* songs. God's wounds, this is bad enough to make me swear off drinking women and screwing whiskey.

Jim Gordon and Rick Grech are gone, replaced by some robotic guns for hire from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. As a result, the rhythm section becomes dull faster than kill your mother, as these pro-dudes don't know how to play anything that isn't specifically written on a page by a pen.  Nowadays they'd probably just use samples, but in that technology-deprived time they had to find somebody and pay them to sound this dull.  Chris Wood is gone so much it had me wondering if maybe he'd gotten picked up by some rednecks on the way to the studio who thought he might be a girl with a speech impediment or something.  But shit, Traffic's performances suffered last least there was a TV-sized portion of decent songwriting between the nonstop jamming that clogged that shit up faster than Cheney's last remaining chest artery. If they'd already started to be derivative in 1971, here they've stooped to employing carbon paper. Everything about this record seems stolen from previous Traffic releases, especially Low Spark, which is sort of like Liberia looking to Sierra Leone for assistance with its poverty problems.  The main difference for me between that record and Shoot Out is that Low Spark didn't actually offend me.  I can't say that about this record. 'Low Spark of High Heeled Boys' was long and mostly useless, but at the core was few minutes of a heartfelt and reasonably melodic tune about getting screwed by the music industry.  The surprisingly more draggy 'Roll Right Stones' glabbers on about some goddamn crystals or Stonehenge or some other such mystical cowshit for the same length of time...that's offensive to me. The riff in the title track that sounds exactly like 'Smoke On The Water' played through an AM Radio? That's offensive. Winwood essentially singing seven minutes of 'turn that frown upside down' on the howlingly derivative Elton John rip that is so ironically titled 'Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired'? That's offensive. Christ, I don't even want to go into further detail.  The best thing I can say about Shoot Out is that there are sections of a few minutes each that might work as background music. That's quite a drop from Low Spark, for instance, which could probably work as background all the way through.  Hell, this album is so bad I don't even like Winwood's singing, which seems to go out of tune more often than Britney Spears with a tapejam. When the last and final foundations of your sound, namely the jazz groove and you lead vocalist pass out in the race, it's time to maybe reconsider your artistic project.  Or hell, just press on another year and fulfill your one will notice anyway.

Capn's Final Word: (Sometimes I feel) like taking a dump in Steve Winwood's piano.  There's already a steaming pile on my turntable.

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On The Road - Island 1973.

This well-maligned double live will have to wait until I track down someone dumb enough to not only have paid money for it, but also to digitize it and make it freely available over the Internet, thus breaking copyright law and placing themselves in jeopardy of criminal legal proceedings at the hands of a bunch of slimy moneygrubbing vampires.  What, you think I'm going to pay money for this shit?

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When the Eagle Flies - Island 1974.

Traffic's shrunk once again to the core trio plus a salaried bass player, which shouldn't mean anything to you other than to note that Rebop, by far the best thing about the last album, has packed his bags and headed for the hills. You'd think that the loss of their 'big' band sound and percussive drive would doom this album to darnnation in heck (where the A/C is broken, there's plenty of tortilla chips but no salsa in sight, and demons give you papercuts once or twice a day), but they surprisingly pull out a fair representation of themselves here.  Surprising? Sure! I had my finger on the 'D' key as soon as I put this one on, because folks like to A) pretend this is Traffic's worst-ever album, which simply isn't true, and/or B) forget this one even exists.  There's reasons for the latter explanation - this is Traffic's last album, lacked that groovy 3-D cover art and mile-long nonsensical title, and it didn't have anything close to resembling a hit. The former, hell...I think people are just so tired of listening to Traffic that by the time they make it here they just assume it sucks because it's quieter than usual.  They're fucked...I'd even say this is more melodic and enjoyable than Low Spark, but I also have to admit it still blows and I'll never listen to it again by choice.  It's sort of like trying to figure out which of Bill Clinton's former mistresses is the prettiest...they're all hideous and disgusting in their own way.  I seriously hated Shootout, but there's tracks here I'd even seek out listen to again, namely the understated 'Graveyard People' and sweeping 'Walking in the Wind'.  So they're both over 6 minutes long when 3 would be plenty...this is Traffic! Stretching shit out until its loose and floppy and not fun to have sex with anymore is what they're all about!  Okay, it's irritating as fuck and I hope Stevie Winwood gets mistakenly thrown into a Turkish prison colony for several days for retribution, but I guess I've come to peace with this particular fault of Traffic's.  They think they're making 'groove' songs, hell, funk even (they employ a lot more funk and Miles Davis-y jazz-rock accouterments here, like the wah-wah horn, the Moog, and oodles of drumming that's heavy on the one) when they're really just making soft-rock tunes that will never make it onto radio because they're about two or three times too long.  The only thing that really comes close to their black music aspirations is 'Love', a halfway convincing simulation of jazz-funk's rich stylistics, but not one that's very interesting. The jamming sections feel like they're more integrated into the songs here, instead of feeling like two separate entities...the traditional way-too-fucking-long track here is 'Dream Gerrard', which I guess I can pay a particularly backhanded complement to by saying that while I hate the recurring synth line and can't find an interesting solo to save my ass, it still doesn't seem like it's quite 11 minutes long.  Maybe only 9 and a half. Conversely, I feel every last stinking second of, say, 'Low Spark'.

Strangely, it's the short tracks I particularly don't dig here.  The title track is a confused mess of tuneless yarbling (Nobody ever mentions that Winwood really has problems with pitch more often than he should, especially considering his reputation.  I guess he's no Peter Gabriel after all, especially when he's higher than Sputnik. I suppose he probably was jacked up about 98% of the time in 1974.) and free-time piano that goes nowhere, Capaldi's autobiographical 'Memories of a Rock 'n' Rolla' is trite and relies on a melody that's about as original as parrotting out retard mid-90's catchphrases like 'all good' and 'the shit' like you're motherfucking Warren G or something. 'Rolla' makes rock music sound like a really fucking boring thing to involve yourself in. Which, if you're a member of Traffic, is probably not far from the truth.  'Something New' sounds like uptempo Billy Joel in the mid-70's, that jive white-boy soul thing that always strikes me as being extremely easy to do when you've run out of legitimate ideas.

Again, pointing fingers at Traffic and charging that they're low on songwriting  ideas is like claiming George W. Bush is maybe not the best candidate for MENSA.  It's a fact that is so well documented it's become part of how we have to take them...they're just not good songwriters, is all.  That's why more than half their albums have scored in the C-range.  It's mighty immature to expect that they're going to suddenly grow up and start writing 'Pearly Queen' again.  Dave Mason's not coming back, and Stevie Winwood's not suddenly going to sprout an imagination. Either accept it and enjoy what they do do well, which on When the Eagle Flies is make sexy little soft-rock grooves, or hate them forever and move on down the alphabetical list to Travis Tritt or the Tremeloes. Apparently a bunch of people really bought this shit in the early 70's, far more than ever picked up Mr. Fantasy, anyway, so we can't really fault Winwood and company for at least holding to where the bucks were.  How does this all fit into When the Eagle Flies? It sucks less than some other recent outings, but it still makes like a supercharged ShopVac at a kitty litter convention when given half a chance.

Capn's Final Word: Still awful. Oh, baby yeah...still awful at heart, but tolerable in a way that the last two weren't because of some nice, quiet grooves that make the time go mercilessly faster.

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Far From Home - Virgin 1994.

Right...the post solo-career meltdown reunion album meant to sell reunion concert tickets, which in turn are meant to sell more albums.  Gotta package that product, baby, or those dim-memoried boomers who would go to a 1994-vintage Traffic show might not quite get saturated enough.  They may even get so confused as to buy a far superior Eric Clapton record instead! Can't have that! Crap, for a band that doesn't have very many releases, they've got more contractual obligations than Elizabeth Taylor's husband.  Both their live albums, Last Exit, When the Eagle Flies, and Far From Home all have that certain cheapo  'let's rush this out so we don't get sued by [pick one - Polydor/Island/Virgin] because they want their money, like, yesterday' quality that marks a neglected musical workproduct.  Now Far From Home, let's give 'em credit...Winwood and Capaldi took twenty years to come up with this one, so you can't, in fairness, claim that this one was rushed.  And what did they spend their time doing in the interim? Winwood sold beer and made VH-1 his personal fiefdom for about two years, Chris Wood bought the farm (that's 'the farm', not 'a farm', ladies and gents), and Jim Capaldi fell into that sort of classic rocker sideman limbo where he released a string of solo and collaborative albums that less than 10 people bought, four of them being family members and two being Wilson and Allroy).  Not really setting the world on fire, and other than the fact that everybody else was doing it, there was really no reason to reform the band.  Two original members? Was Rebop booked or something? 'Uhhh, sorry guys. See, I got this gig at the Akron Holiday Inn playing happy hour with a former backup singer for Wang Chung...' I for sure don't remember much of a groundswell of support for a Traffic reunion back in 1994...not too many folks really remembered them, and those who did didn't much give a shit.  Which explains why they played some old friendships and latched on as an opening act for the Grateful Dead. 

O-tay, let's keep this short so we can all go home early and fuck the wife before having a glass of ice tea and going to bed early.  This album buh-lows. It makes Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory look like a piece of rare art.  It sounds more like a Winwood solo album than anything by the 'classic' (ha!) Traffic lineup, with lots of jive-ass tunes that replicate that odious form of Yuppie-rock late-80's R&B that sold craploads to people who thought Huey Lewis was 'too black sounding'. The ballads all sound like they're based on Michael Bolton's greatest artistic triumphs when they're not ripping off from Phil Collins' 80's work. Synthtones dominate, which is to be expected I guess, but it's an affront to the memory of Chris Wood that all of the woodwind parts are recreated using flimsy digital synth samples that sound about as authentic as Ted Danson's hair.  Lyrically, we're stuck in a netherworld of nifty liberal sloganeering, from environmentalism to 'why can't we all just get along *sob!*' preaching.  Hell, they even invoke 'higher love' a couple of times, just in case we've forgotten who's doing the singing back there.  If this sounds like classic Traffic, then I'm Syd Barrett's imaginary friend...this is cash-taking nostalgia for boomers in relaxed-fit ass-tent Dockers who couldn't remember what good music was if you spotted them Exile on Main St. and  Layla.  Luckily for us, the album sold dick and the tour didn't set anyone's world ablaze, so we can pretty much thank our lucky stars there's not going to be another Traffic reunion anytime soon.  Expect Steve Winwood reviews sometime in about twenty years.

Capn's Final Word: Twice as long as any regular-issue Traffic album you care to mention, and three times as god-fucking-awful. Say no to your urge to buy it for fifty cents from the cutout bin..

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Jason     Your Rating: F
Any Short Comments?: Alright, I haven't actually heard this album, but I just had something to say about the whole 'what happened to Rebop?' thing.  After Traffic's demise, he joined Can, of all people, and stayed with them for a couple of years in the late 70s until they broke up.  Then he died in the early 80s. 
Sorry for the pretension of writing in facts and stuff, kind of like the annoying kid who has to correct his teacher's pronunciations. It's just that I got the Can DVD recently, and they were kind of on my mind all through reading the Traffic reviews.

By the way, I really love your site.  I check it regularly for updates at times when I'm supposed to be working.

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