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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Traffic

The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys

Review by Steve Alspach

Somewhere in Steve Winwood’s career, between the blue-eyed teen soul of “I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin’” to the made-for-the-80s albums of Arc of a Diver and Back in the High Life came a little bit of exploration. He recorded with percussionist Stomu Yomash’ta and Mike Shrieve as Go, and Traffic’s version of “John Barleycorn” was a landmark in the then-popular folk-rock era. But as Traffic had its on-again off-again moments, the band was able to put out some great music, perhaps none better than this album. Besides the usual trio of Winwood, Jim Capaldi, and Chris Wood, bassist Ric Grech (another ex-Blind Faith member), uber-musician Jim Gordon, and percussionist “Rebop” Kwaku Baah (is that a great name or what?) filled out the sound considerably. Fortunately the songs and arrangements knew when to open up and when to pull back. The result is a classic of the early ‘70s that still sounds fresh.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Hidden Treasure
This understated little nugget starts off the album. An acoustic arrangement, highlighted by Chris Wood’s tasteful flute fills, accompanies Winwood’s delicate vocals. The piece touches on their folksy roots, perhaps best explored on their John Barleycorn album.
The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
You’ve probably heard this track before, but if I ever hear it on radio, I always think “Ah! There’s hope for radio yet!” This title track is one of the best examples of fusion that I can think of. Consider: if two hallmarks of jazz is syncopation and improvisation, than this has it in spades, the former in the chordal piano riff, and the latter in the extended jam after the second verse-chorus go-round. But it’s the end, with the final blast of distortion over the piano riff, that’s the grabber. Rather than a big ending, Traffic takes a subtle route, leaving the listener to take in the 11.30 or so that preceded it while the fading riff seems to say “nothing unusual – we do this all the time.”
Light Up or Leave Me Alone
Capaldi gets the lead vocal on this self-penned tune. The song is a slick little rocker with a simple guitar hook between verses. The band gets into a fun little jam towards the end.
Rock And Roll Stew
Co-written by Grech and Gordon, this is the least Traffic-sounding song in the whole album and may have the least to offer. Like “Light Up…,” “…Stew” has a guitar hook as its anchor. The song has a slower, slinkier rhythm than “Light Up…,” though.
Many A Mile To Freedom
This sounds a bit more like the Traffic we’re used to – Winwood’s electric piano holds down the fort while Wood again offers some delicate lines on his flute. The guitar counters with some nice, simple arpeggiated lines on the between-chorus-and-verse space. There’s an extended ending here where the band locks into a good, relaxed groove.
Rainmaker
A bit like “Hidden Treasure,” this closer is evocative of pastoral England with the flute in 6/8. There’s a bit of an Eastern feel to the vocal line of “Rainmaker, rainmaker.” Wood, again on flute, gets more of a lead role here than on the other songs. Like on “Many a Mile,” there is an extended coda here as well, but the band jumps into a more funk-filled jam and in a different key.
 
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