The fourth studio album by the group Traffic, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys is a fascinating album. If you are debating which Traffic album is their best, you might pick John Barleycorn Must Die (1970) or Traffic (1969), both worthy contenders. My pick is the album I’m writing about in this blog.
Each Traffic album through When the Eagle Flies (1974) features a revamped lineup and a shift of style. Each album contains several really fine songs, although When the Eagle Flies is their weakest effort. Traffic was always a band in transition, tied to membership but also the sense of musical style at the moment. It is hard to find a band that over seven years that embraced so many different styles of music, and did so capably.
Steve Winwood is usually looked at as the driving force and more style-shifter of the band, and he was. Drummer Jim Capaldi is never quite given credit for his contribution and impact to music. The two of them wrote or co-wrote most of the band’s material, although Dave Mason was a significant writer on the albums he appeared. For the long haul, Winwood and Capaldi created the distinctive blend of musical forms. Woodwind and horn player Chris Wood appeared on every album except for Far From Home (1994), released after Wood’s death.
The title song, “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”, is perhaps the best song Traffic ever released.
It was a repeating piano sequence, with a bass that sets up the slow, soulful groove that will run through most of the song.
An eleven minute song, there’s no excess as it moves and grooves, allowing the band to solo while taking the song beyond, and then returning to the gentle repeating pattern. Interestingly, there’s no guitar on this track, but a killer saxophone by Wood.
Co-writer Capaldi explained the song came from a phrase by actor Michael J. Pollard. It represented a tough, but restrained street attitude.
Musically, the song has a brilliant pacing and structure, appearing simple, but something blending jazz and progressive rock, in a soulful dance step.
The band was expanded to include drummer Jim Gordon, of Derek and the Dominoes game, percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah and bass player Rick Grech of Blind Faith.
- Steve Winwood – lead vocals (tracks 1, 2, 5, 6), guitar, piano, organ
- Jim Capaldi – lead vocals (tracks 3, 4), percussion, backing vocals (track 6)
- Chris Wood – saxophone, flute
- Rick Grech – bass, violin
- Jim Gordon – drums
- Rebop Kwaku Baah – percussion
Album produced by Winwood.
The only single released was “Rock and Roll Stew”, not written by Winwood or Capaldi, but Rick Grech and Jim Gordon. It’s a fine song, just surprising that the album’s single came from two hired guns instead of the band’s core members.
Another standout track was Capaldi’s “Light Up or Leave Me Alone.” A more biting and rocking proposition. Capaldi was coming into his own as a songwriter and stepped away from the drumkit.
Winwood and Capaldi also provided “Hidden Treasure”, “Many a Mile to Freedom” and “Rainmaker.” All three of these tracks are closer in style to the songs on John Barleycorn Must Die.
The album reached number seven on the charts and quickly went Gold. The “Rock and Roll Stew” single barely cracked the top 100, but “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” was an FM radio favorite. FM radio, an infant in those days, played all eleven minutes of the song. It’s what FM radio used to be.
In a few short years, Traffic evolved from short, psychedelic pop, to sophisticated jazz-rock, keeping the mindful lyrics but stepping on the gas musically.
Even though Winwood was the senior member of the firm, Capaldi would establish a respected and successful solo career right up till his death. Capaldi experimented with a variety of styles, some successful, some not, but he remained a dynamic vocalist and performer.
Winwood stumbled early as a solo artist but gradually lived up to lofty expectations, and enjoyed a huge commercial success in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, he was focused on returning to his days of blending styles, jazz, folk, world music and rock, ignoring any effort for commerciality. Winwood is content to tour and play the hits, showing fans he has astounding musical chops. Now in his 70,s he stills dazzles.
The early 1970s would prove to be an uneven time for Traffic. Between poor compilation albums pushed out by the record company, an uninspired reunion album with Mason and a plethora of live albums, there was too much product and and too many lineup changes. There was good music but you had to sift through lesser Traffic product to find it.