Traffic reinvented themselves repeatedly over the course of close to three decades together, but perhaps never more dramatically than with John Barleycorn Must Die. The deluxe version of the title suggests the work represents an even more significant turning point for the British band than the only other comparable work in their discography, The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (Island, 1971)
This 1970 album constitutes Traffic's recommitment to itself and its music, in the wake of near-constant personnel shuffling early in its existence. It was not the last time the group made the most of such changes, but it signifies that point in time when Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood rediscovered the chemistry they shared.
Confounded in his early attempts to produce a true solo album where he would play all the instruments himself, under the title Mad Shadows, Winwood eventually turned to partner Capaldi for both writing and playing assistance. Even later in the project, multi-instrumentalist Wood would join the proceedings. As a result, the core of Traffic appears on all but two of the seven tracks that comprise the original album, this version of which omits an outtake from a previous remaster ("Sittin' Here Thinkin' of My Love").
Instead, the title song and "Stranger to Himself," credited to original producer Guy Stevens, along with "Every Mother's Son," appear in more densely layered alternate arrangements on the second disc that highlight, along with a faintly earthy texture, the more economical approach that comprises the official work. Winwood and co. build on deceptively simple progressions, such as the piano figure of "Glad," to open up room for themselves to interact, and often leave the structure of the piece behind, a concept of collective musicianship the group also took to the stage, as evidenced in a half-dozen live recordings from performances on successive nights at New York's famed Fillmore East late in 1970.
Originally recorded for a live release that never saw the light of day, these performances further illustrate the natural camaraderie of the threesome (despite less-than-stellar recording quality), then accompanied by bassist/violinist Rick Grech, from Family and Blind Faith. In a mark of Traffic's high distinction, the selections span a wide stylistic range, including the whimsical "Medicated Goo," the acoustic guitar/flute accompaniment that enhances the haunting quality of Winwood's voice on "Forty Thousand Headmen," as well as the aforementioned culls from John Barleycorn Must Die.
The questionable sequencing of tracks that leaves close to an hour open on one CD of this Deluxe Edition thus becomes logical so that this expanded version ultimately provides the proper insight and perspective on one of Traffic's epochal releases.