Top critical review
on 17 January 2017
I've never owned this album, I've heard it a couple of times. I think "Glad" and "Freedom rider" are very decent, the rest not-so-much. I can't sit down and listen to Twenty-odd minutes of John Barleycorn must die, it's beyond me to do it. In British folk clubs, launching into this (there are many versions) is a signal that it's time to go to the bar to replenish and stand there chatting but if we are getting treated to a full-monty twenty-odd minute versions, there could be "comment" from the house floor - it's a "right old chestnut". Why did they record this? Folk music isn't generally Winwood or Traffic's thing, is it? Why on Earth would he come to know hundreds of verses of this? In terms of rendition, they are out of their depth by the standards of such as Martin Carthy, Fairport Convention, all that lot. I wonder......
I think this has happened again since....."Low Spark" sounds under-rehearsed, under prepared and the line was that Traffic are seeking a less produced sound but this all began a long time ago. The first I heard of Stevie Winwood was the music press beginning to bang the drum about a young midlands prodigy, a multi-instrumentalist with a voice from God. Sure enough, the first Spencer Davis album got airplay and began to "bubble under" - the singing from Winwood was sensational and remained so always throughout his career with Spencer Davis. His instrumental stuff was great but it was really the "icing on the cake" because the initial fuss was all about that voice. They had good chart success too and then Winwood left to form Traffic. "Paper sun" and Mr Fantasy told us that great things were to come but then it all went dead. Personnel problems, the coming and going of Dave Mason, the different cover and track list in the USA to launch Traffic as a trio etc and a very, very long interval until anything more was released and this was "No face, no name, no number". Problems, for sure. The second album was launched in Britain with a free concert in Hyde Park, a couple of tracks were all right but too much stuff (particularly lyrics) didn't seem to have been polished up at all for recording - a quick one, too quick. It's "kind of" engaging if one likes Winwood's stuff (I do) but nowhere near the innovative muscle of Mr Fantasy.
"Last Exit" was just sweepings from the cutting room floor, scrappy output from a band with problems getting in the way of their music-making. John Barleycorn was a revival and a "putting to bed" of these troubles and a resumption of getting down to doing decent stuff.
Really? These problems were still there. Winwood arrived with only half of an album of material. What to do? His label-mates were Fairport Convention and this was also the mischievous Dave Swarbrick - his advice about filling an album side would have to have been "John Barleycorn" to someone (Winwood) that didn't know that "scene" at all. Much laughter in the Fairport camp when Winwood "goes for" that!
Having duly ploughed through this to microphones, the problem is to market it as a cohesive and genuine album, hence the first side and album title on a record that is really an unfinished project because they hadn't prepared properly. Traffic have certainly got "form" in arriving "half-baked" to a studio so that's how that happened, I reckon. Winwood has the right o do as he likes but he always disappointed me. I agreed with those early journo that were saying we have something sensational in this voice but Winwood always seemed to leave it till last and do the "creative" thing. The trouble is, he's not the greatest songwriter and no were his writing partners and there are loads of people around who play decent keyboards, guitar, what-have-you but a voice like that is a very rare thing. Doesn't matter, he's done all right.