Listening to….Traffic (1968 & 1970 versions)

May as well get this out there from the start….Traffic were always my favourite band from that crop of English bands emerging from the whole mid-60’s  ‘beat’ and blues scene.  The 3-guitar Fleetwood Mac line-up from 1969-70 would probably have run them close had they been around a bit longer, but at the time, it was Traffic for me and it was all tied in to that romantic image of Island Records (see 26 September post on this) as a wellspring of the best & the brightest that England could conjure up.

I think a lot of Traffic fans point the finger at Dave Mason when reviewing the crazed history of the band from 1967 through to when the others finally gave up on him in about 1971.  He joined, he left, he rejoined, he left again then he turned up on the London gigs that produced ‘Welcome to the Canteen’ but (apparently) wouldn’t agree to the album being released under the ‘Traffic’ name, hence we got Winwood, Capaldi, Wood, Mason and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.  Having said that, I think that was the line-up that appeared at the same year’s Glastonbury Festival that was filmed and they were billed as Traffic for that……seems like the only people who cared were the guys in the band ; to everyone else, it was Traffic.

Anyway,  it’s all ancient history now and however flaky Mason was, the highest profile  departure, after all, was when Winwood left for the whole Blind Faith adventure.  No matter; Traffic had this great tradition of soldiering on whoever left – whilst Winwood was with Blind Faith, the other three recruited Mick Weaver (known in those hazy days as Wynder K. Frog) and continued as Wooden Frog.  Their only recorded legacy (that I know of) was a handful of BBC session tracks, which reveal them to be…well, like a paler shade of Traffic, basically, but without Winwood’s voice.

The 3 piece version of Traffic that toured in the USA in the summer of 1970 are rather better documented – officially, via Side 2 of the ‘Last Exit’ album and unofficially via a fair selection of bootleg recordings….

Which brings me to ‘These Three Men’ which has suddenly appeared from nowhere and is an excellent document of

 

the 3-piece Traffic at their best.  Recorded at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester at the far end of Westchester County in late June of 1970, the 10 tracks show the boys to be in top form.  Certainly, the version of Nina Simone’s ‘Feelin’ Good’ here knocks spots off the ‘Last Exit’ version and songs like ‘John Barleycorn’ and ‘Every Mother’s Son’ are also particularly effective.  I have to say that, at the time and particularly once I’d heard the two lengthy live tracks on ‘Last Exit’, I thought that taking to the road without someone to replace Mason was a fairly risky tactic, but this recording shows the band to be inconvenienced only now and again – I missed the acoustic guitar on ‘40,000 Headmen’ for instance, but it’s a minor issue on what is an excellent recording.

As a postscript to all this, it should perhaps be noted that by the time Traffic returned to America in November of the same year, they had added Ric Grech on bass, guitar & violin, so maybe they weren’t that keen on the three-piece after all!  It was this line-up (also heavily bootlegged) who allegedly recorded an official live album, the tapes of which Steve Winwood allegedly ‘lost’ on the subway in New York….or did I just make that up?  I’m sure  I remember a story to that effect in the music papers at the time…instead, we got the so-so ‘Welcome to the Canteen’ the following year.

I was quite surprised to see the Port Chester gig as I thought I had cornered pretty much all of the decent Traffic boots from that tour, so a pleasant surprise there.  On the basis that these things always come in bunches, I also recently got hold of a long sought after CD of  about 40 minutes-worth (6 tracks) from Traffic’s headlining set at one of the early Hyde Park Free Concerts (the second one, I believe, with The Nice , The Pretty Things and Junior’s Eyes  in support)) that took place in July 1968.  This recording is probably for diehards only – it’s an audience tape  in glorious mono and a bit boomy, though clearly recorded pretty close to the stage. 

1968-era Traffic

It’s actually quite interesting to hear the four piece band in a genuinely live setting as there’s not too much of this stuff around – some recordings from the 1967 Swedish tour as memory serves – and that’s about it.  The rest of the early stuff I’ve encountered is radio sessions of one kind or another.  Anyway, for all the limitations of the recording – and I’ve heard worse – the band seemed to be on pretty good form that day, with no sign of the underlying tensions that made their early history such a tortuous affair.  Wish I could have been there……

 

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