Thursday, August 14, 2008

Traffic -- "Glad/Freedom Rider" (1970)

In his long career in rock and roll, Steve Winwood's best musical work was with the prog/jazz/rock/folk band Traffic. Considered a classic rock staple, Traffic's star seems to have faded over the years, but then again, they were never an easy band to pigeonhole, like Led Zep's heavy metal blues bombast, Pink Floyd's slow downer space rock, The Doors' exotic drugged out bliss attacks or Creedence's tremolo-ridden swamp rock.

In their first incarnation, mostly with guitarist Dave Mason aboard, they were distinctly psychedelic ("Paper Sun," "Hole In My Shoe") or just kind of dirge-like ("Dear Mister Fantasy"). Winwood detoured to his one famous Blind Faith album with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, but then reformed Traffic with a whole different direction on what was supposed to be his first solo album, John Barleycorn Must Die.

Traffic was truly a once-in-a-lifetime melding of tremendous musical talents: keyboardist/singer Winwood, drummer Jim Capaldi (who co-wrote much of the material with Winwood), and multi-instrumentalist Chris Wood, adding a bassist and percussionist for their next album, Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.

John Barleycorn opener "Glad" was almost like a gauntlet being thrown down, a seven-minute jazz rock instrumental featuring Winwood's lightening quick bebop piano melody up front, his overdubbed B-3 organ and Wood's exuberant blowing saxophone solo, so vivid that they sounded very much live and like a band jamming away in a basement club somewhere. With exotic minor chord changes, pumping in like some kind of action TV series theme, "Glad" signaled that this Mason-less Traffic was taking a different road than just about anything else out there.

In that heyday of Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and Creedence's "Green River," Traffic's "Glad" must have sounded very hip and out-of-nowhere to progressive radio DJ's with its flat-out jazz fusion style. Listening to it again, I'm not even quite sure there's a bass guitar on it.

Just as "Glad" slows to a fading stop, the twisted melody of Winwood's basic piano chords and Wood's saxophone interrupt to start "Freedom Rider." With a beautiful reverb around one of Winwood's best vocal performances, Traffic shifts more into a galloping rock vein while keeping the jazz touches intact. Those guys put together some strange chord combinations, but yet they worked brilliantly for one strange set of lyrics:

Like a hurricane around your heart
When earth and sky are torn apart.
He comes gathering up the bits
While hoping that the puzzle fits.
He leads you, he leads you.
Freedom rider.

With a silver star between his eyes
That open up at hidden lies.
Big man crying with defeat,
See people gathering in the street.
You feel him, you feel him.
Freedom rider.

When lightning strikes you to the bone,
You turn around, you're all alone.
By the time you hear that siren sound,
Then your soul is in the lost and found.
Forever, forever.
Freedom rider.

The song's highlight is undoubtedly Wood's wicked flute solo, which unlike Ian Anderson's very precise classicism in Jethro Tull, is loose and warm. The build-up to the solo is a brilliant arrangement, a musical detour that leads from a raging minor chord peaking to a major one, the bass rolling upwards, the drums doing a long fill. You expect some wild solo to come in at this crescendo -- a keyboard? a guitar? -- but it's that cool flute puckering away, the bass hitting the upper notes and an octave below in synch with Capaldi's drums. It's a neat trick for Wood to start off rather low key and then practically screaming through his instrument by the end of his solo.

Winwood has said Traffic was a "jam band," and he was absolutely right, although in an eclectic style all their own. Whereas War was all groove, percussion and funk, and the Grateful Dead endless acoustic guitar excursions, Traffic merged rock, bebop and folk into one memorable melting pot.

Below is Traffic circa 1972 in Santa Monica performing a revved-up "Glad," when the Memphis Shoals rhythm section of drummer Roger Hawkins and bassist David Hood, with percussionist Rebop Kawku Baah were now part of the band. Afterwards from the same show, "Freedom Rider," accompanied by some light show effects in the beginning. Capaldi looks like he's playing tambourine on both songs.


Anonymous said...

My favorite band ever. Never equalled.

capewood said...

Traffic is in my top 10 for sure. Glad/Freedom Rider is a great piece.

Jillian's Random Ruminations said...

Thank you so much for this post. My first experience with Traffic was Low Spark. It was at that moment, at the age of 19 that I began to understand the importance of sound systems. I had the pleasure of listening to High Heeled on a system with no rival....this was POWERFUL stuff. At this moment...I knew there was no going back.
I'm 56 now and feel more complete for the experiences I've had....the abduction...seduction...into the world of Traffic. You can't explain to someone how it feels to hear Low Spark or Glad.
One merely needs to indulge in Chris Wood on Glad/Freedom Rider and THEN read your wonderfully written piece. How fortunate are we to revel in the absolute freedom of expression manifested in Traffic....which I do when I run each and every rut that I'm delightfully entrenched in.
Thank you again for your take....Traffic can never be overstated.

Anonymous said...

I just heard "Glad" again, after years. I ran home to look up who the musicians were in Traffic, because I just wanted MORE. Thank you for your exuberant and informative article.

mr pc said...

Very hip comments. You even got the lyrics right!

Side One of John Barleycorn is a high water mark of rock keyboard playing. Glad - Freedom Rider - Empty Pages almost constitutes a suite of sorts. The groove of Freedom Rider still burns 40 years after its was laid down.