Continuing our new, short series, in which some of our writers try to convince you that a band or an album, not usually associated with the genre, is worthy of inclusion in the world of Americana, Graeme Tait wades into deep water to champion psychedelic folk-rockers, Traffic. Are you convinced?
Okay! I know what you’re thinking, he’s finally lost the plot, been out in the sun too long, had one too many sherbets, but bear with me and I will endeavour to explain. Firstly, can we agree that the genre that is Americana music has no geographical boundaries, and is simply a broad musical style that has its origins in country, folk and blues music, which when mixed with a large dollop of late sixties pop culture has mutated into this kaleidoscope of sound from around the globe that we recognise and enjoy so much today.
Good! Now let’s move on to the subject matter, the very British band that is Traffic, and in particular their first three albums. Formed in April 1967 by Steve Winwood, ex lead singer and keyboard player with the Spencer Davis Group, drummer and vocalist Jim Capaldi, guitarist and vocalist Dave Mason, (who had both been in the Helions and Deep Feeling), and woodwind player Chris Wood, formerly with Locomotive, they together embodied the psychedelic, flower power sound of Middle England. Due to his previous success with the Spencer Davis Group, which included two number one hit singles in the UK Charts, Winwood was seen as the focal point of the band, but in Capaldi and Mason they had two very talented songwriters in their own right, and along with their harmonies contributed massively to the overall sound and musical direction of the band.
Prior to the release of their first album the band had three Uk hit singles, all epitomising the psychedelic movement that was sweeping through the country at the time, complete with trippy lyrical overtones, however none were to appear on their debut album. By the time, ‘Mr Fantasy’, hit the shops that December there was already a musical shift as the three main writers, Winwood, Capaldi and Mason competed to assert their songwriting and differing musical visions for the band. True there’s still enough, ‘Flower Power’, going on to keep the average hay fever sufferer with a runny nose for days especially, ‘Utterly Simple’, with some fine sitar playing by Mason, but listen more closely and you will hear the beginnings of a subtle change in direction. This is most evident on the title track, ‘Dear Mr Fantasy’, with a much more west coast vibe that has more in common with Buffalo Springfield’s, ‘Mr Soul’, than say Pink Floyd and, ‘See Emily Play’. Similarly, ‘Dealer’, which opens with some fine flamenco guitar playing from Mason before it musically explodes, exploring territories more associated with legendary acid rock bands such as Love and 13th Floor Elevators.
Still with me? Excellent, because this is where things begin to get very interesting. By the time of the release of their self titled second album, Mason had left and then rejoined the band, and it’s his contributions that take up half the album and consequently help give this album its Americana flavour. Opening track, ‘You Can All Join In’, is a good example with its infectious backbeat, acoustic rhythms and some tasty lead guitar that gives a nod to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead’s ‘American Beauty’, album. On ‘Don’t be Sad’, you can hear, particularly on the chorus, how the four members of the band harmonise so well together that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Crosby, Stills, and Nash album. However the ultimate piece of evidence comes in the shape of ‘Feelin’ Alright’, a Mason penned song that I swear Stephen Stills must wake up every morning convinced he’d written, so comfortably would it have fitted on to his eponymous solo album. The strained relationships within the band, especially between Winwood and Mason led to Mason leaving soon after the albums release, while the remaining members survived for one more tour before Winwood’s departure to form Blind Faith brought things to an untimely halt. They would re-unite in 1970, albeit without Mason, on what was originally going to be a solo project for Winwood before Capaldi and Wood joined resulting in it becoming the next Traffic album, ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’. Without Mason the musical direction changed, now leading to a more modern interpretation of traditional folk music in the vein of Fairport Convention and Pentangle, which to these ears still falls under the Americana banner, with the title track being one of the finest examples of this genre.
However, from here on the line up would constantly change and expand, which at one point included Roger Hawkins and David Hood from the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, whose contribution helped to unsurprisingly impact the overall sound. The band’s musical output would now be described as progressive rock, yet their sound was far removed from that of Pink Floyd, Yes, King Crimson, or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and would still have more in common with the Grateful Dead with whom they would tour with when reforming in 1994.
Individually, Winwood, Capaldi and Mason all had periods of relative success. Winwood would become a darling of the eighties pop charts, while Mason would continue to mine his favoured west coast sound working with such Laurel Canyon royalty as Mama Cass. Capaldi would have major chart success in 1975 with a cover of, ‘Love Hurts’, a song that has become synonymous with Gram Parsons, one of the linchpins of Americana music. These last two points clearly suggest that for Mason and Capaldi their musical hearts and inspirations lay across the Atlantic to the sunshine Coast of California.
Now there is a school of thought that suggests if an artist’s sound does not fit comfortably within the more common musical genres then its probably Americana, which of course is neither true, nor that simple. Traffic’s sound, like all the best acts, was constantly evolving, never allowing themselves to be easily pigeonholed. Non the less I believe that there is enough evidence from those first three albums to position them along side the finest of the west coast bands of the late sixties and early seventies, many who are seen as at the very foundation of what we have come to call Americana music today. For those of you that are still to be convinced, I encourage you to search these albums out, for the proof, as is the final piece of my argument, is in the listening.