Traffic - John Barleycorn Must Die (Deluxe Edition)
Four decades down the line sees the re-release of Traffic’s 1970 album John Barleycorn Must Die, remastered and packaged as a deluxe edition with a second disc of live and alternative studio versions. Steve Winwood is rightly seen as one of British music’s leading lights in the 60s and 70s. His stardom began with fronting the Spencer Davis Group when he was just fifteen before leaving to form Traffic with Dave Mason, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood.
Whilst John Barleycorn Must Die is widely acknowledged as the band’s finest work, it was within a gnat’s whisker of never seeing the light of day; Traffic made three albums concluding with the prophetic Last Exit before they split. Winwood went off to form Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Rich Grech, whilst his former band mates carried on before they themselves broke up.
After Blind Faith, Winwood started work on a solo project but soon realised it was missing the depth of other musicians and brought back Capaldi and Wood to contribute and the result was, at the time, staggering. Music in 1970 was fracturing, with groups creating exciting new sounds but often veering off in different directions. Winwood bucked the trend by creating an album that featured mixtures of jazz, blues, folk, prog rock and even soul – often pulling from different genres within single tracks. Bear in mind that he was still only 22 years old at the time and you can see why the legend was created.
John Barleycorn Must Die is hailed as one of the decade's great albums and if you don’t own it, then your collection has a gaping hole. But does it stand up to the passage of the years? Well, it’s sad to say, but no, it doesn’t. What was radical at the time now sounds tired and often dull. Of the original six tracks, ‘Every Mother’s Son’ remains silky smooth and a real pleasure and ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’ remains one of the finest versions of a traditional folk song on record - but the other four songs are flavourless by comparison.
Avid fans will welcome the alternative edits and live recordings on the second disc, but out of ten extra tunes, the only pleasers are live versions of ‘Every Mother’s Son’ and ‘Forty Thousand Headmen’ which has the echoes of early Jethro Tull. If you’re a serious collector or musical historian, then you really should buy John Barleycorn Must Die as it is one of the building blocks of British music. However, whilst you will certainly get some enjoyment out of listening to it, it will be one to ration for occasional airings, otherwise it will quickly lose its magic