SW logo "Traffic: Coming or Going?":
Creem, February, 1975

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"Turn off those f*ckin' lights!" the Phantom of the Balcony bellowed. And on that disrespectful note the show began. We were not aware that we were to witness either the sad end of an era, or the shaky first steps to a great change. Judging from the performance that followed we weren't the only ones caught unawares. Traffic was definitely not all there and the hollowness was chilling.

Winwood sauntered meekly to center stage to a tumultuous welcome. Chicago can be the most demonstratively grateful audience in the universe when welcoming a returning legend, just as it can be the most devastatingly rude bunch of f*ckers this side of Armageddon to new faces or unproven ideas. This night they were faced with all of the above and responded with appropriate variety going from ecstasy to cat-calls whenever the mood struck them. Between moods they sat in a wine-soaked stupor waiting for encore time. That's the fun part. The show is just something to watch before you set fire to the chairs and hurl cherry bombs onto the unsuspecting bodies below. And if that doesn't bring them back you can always light a roll of toilet paper and send it blazing across the auditorium. Brings to mind the old time cowboy bad guy yelling "Dance!" at his quaking victim while firing a round of bullets at this feet. Rock stars are finally at the mercy of the arrogance they taught us.

Unfortunately some of the least arrogant and most sensitive musicians are also at the mercy of the knuckleheads. And Winwood is definitely one of the last living examples of that sort of cat. I just know this dude got an Incomplete in Rock Star Attitudes 101. He came out wearing this lived-in looking T-shirt that didn't fit around the waist, and a pair of those new-looking jeans that bend like cardboard. His hair had been rudely chopped off just at chin line and looked slightly unwashed. And very neglected. It spilled into his still bright and painfully open eyes whenever he huddled over those keyboards.

But he didn't seem frightened. He might have been unprepared for the vociferous buttholes in the balconies but someone must have told him something about what to expect after his long absence. He used a clever "give and take" formula: "I'll give you two oldies, you tolerate two new ones." It worked. It had a seesaw effect. Just as you got bored and bothered by the new stuff he slammed into an oldie, and just as you were about to notice that the oldies weren't hanging in there too good either, he vaulted into something new and exciting-up again. He did all the right old tunes: the winner of the evening "John Barleycorn Must Die," "Pearly Queen," "Forty Thousand Headmen," "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," "Who Knows What Tomorrow Will Bring," and for a nostalgic and extremely heart-warming first encore he smiled his way through "Heaven Is In Your Mind."

And if you must know, Chris Wood is still squeaking and squawking on the sidelines with elfin glee, enjoying his electrified gadgets for some personal reason. During "John Barleycorn" and "Forty Thousand etc" he helped to create some nice atmospheres. Mostly he made annoyingly unnecessary asides and his solos left everything to the imagination. Capaldi has gone back to his kit and apparently absence has made the beat grow stronger. He has become more than just a steady thumper and more often than not when the timing was right and the band was tight it was Capaldi holding it together. The new bassist is steady and funky but not very self-directed. In fact in his embarrassing and totally uncalled-for extended solo he floundered real bad. When atonal rock becomes the rage he will be right up there with the pioneers but as for now, I guess I'm just not ready.

So there's the obligatory run down. If I sound a little displeased around the edges it's because I was. It's no fun to hear the death-rattle of one of rock's most consistent maverick bands. But Traffic seems to have succumbed to that tired blood syndrome of the 70s; that 'lude-laced plague that turns gold into lead. And that is a sad business indeed.

There was reason to reserve judgment. Winwood did seem to be taking notes for future reference, and may be contemplating some surprises in the future. Unfortunately for us mortals he therefore seemed uninspired by the old crowd-pleasers and under-developed when he moved on to the newer stuff. The newer material has good solid themes, but he simply allowed them to be repeated; never elaborated or ignited. He seems to be headed towards a kind of spacey Weather Report jazz or a hybrid of that and his own still potent brand of soul. But he is heading there prematurely.

Winwood and Co. cannot yet hold their own in making the leap from well-constructed short rock pieces to open-ended and riskier jazz improvisation - the "keep doing it and something has got to happen" formula does not work for them. Traffic is a band of followers, there is no leaders to direct that sort of style, perhaps because Winwood is not used to operating on that principle. Troubleshooter, gap filler, tune weaver, yes. But one can trace from "Mr Fantasy" to the latest material, a lengthening and loosening of songs that has not proved wise. What was once rich, sure-footed and complex -- Traffic used to forsake individual "virtuosity" in search of the fully integrated whole -- is now sparse, tentative, and tellingly simple. Given room to move they ramble aimlessly and die; "Glad" was the harbinger of this fate. It had all the aforementioned symptoms, the big charts, the repetition, the inconclusive ending.

The new concern with jazz improvs and the search for the profoundly funky has taken its toll in other ways as well. Some of the magic has gone out of the music; some of the imagination has been lost. Oddly enough, one of the most exciting moments of the evening was as far from that sort of thing as one can get, and pointed up the problem all the more. "John Barleycorn Must Die," done simply, but letter perfectly as was their style for years, set an exquisite other-worldly mood, a gem among the bottom heavy rhinestones. The music built from quaint to compelling with natural ease, and the crowd, swept along with it and forced somehow to realize that something special was going on, sat spellbound, and then lurched to its feet in the most gleeful "Thank you" of the evening. Of course the best thing about this song was that it had a self-sustaining sense of direction: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The others all had rousing starts and lingering deaths. But perhaps the fact that the song that set out to do the least was the one that worked best might give someone an idea ...

If it seems that the tunesmith supreme has ambitions that his talents cannot support I am willing to bet that the judgment is premature. He can fulfill his ambitions. But he needs the support and enthusiasm of musicians who are capable of bouncing his material around with him until it has been fully charged, and the personal confidence to balance out his own. He has every reason to be confident. He can be one hell of a one-man-band when he tries. He's still got that fonky-honky voice. He owns one of the most distinctively brassy set of chords in the business. Van Morrison owns the other set, an alto to Steve's tenor sax quality. The man looks like God's lost lamb and then Ray Charles comes pouring out of his mouth. He can be a bad gospel shouter, a sanctified chord pounder, when he gets the spirit. There was no doubt even that night that when he slams open a number from behind those eighty-eights it is show time, baby! Perhaps a long stint stripped down to those barest of essentials might whip him into shape. Perhaps not. Perhaps he's had enough.

Having begun very young (barely fifteen) in this business he has had the good/bad fortune to go full circle with it, from its heady, rebellious beginnings to its own inevitable evolution and deterioration. But he has always stood apart from it to an extent, never part of the mainstream, which is why it is best to wait and see. When Cream was jamming for three days around a "Spoonful," he was writing solid little masterpieces. Long before jazz was given the nod he assured us that "Jazz is where it's at, I mean it's right there, man. It's where it's at" and laid down some tasty if imitative Jimmy Smith (or is it McGriff) organ licks just for emphasis. He was only seventeen or so then, and he is still well on the bright side of thirty. Maybe, just maybe, some of the spirit from his formative years is still with him.

If it is and he chooses to use it realistically and not idealistically (this is to say he cannot be Weather Report but he can do the hell out of Steve Winwood), we ain't dead yet. If not, you'll just have to pardon my melodrama. I just want to say once and for all, Steve, you've given me some of the best highs of my life. Thank you, bless you, and I'll miss you.

-- Cynthia Dagnal

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Page created May 9, 2001.
Last updated May 9, 2001.
© 1981 by the author; reproduce only for non-commercial purposes and with full attribution.