LIVE: “The Music of Traffic” @ Club Helsinki, 12/16/17
“I wasn’t that familiar with Traffic,” Joey Eppard admitted to us. “I missed it!” I didn’t miss it, but I only really caught the second episode. You see, there were two chapters to rock virtuoso Steve Winwood’s greatest group. (Don’t start with me about Blind Faith. That was a vanity project, not a band!)
I was totally locked into the later, grooving, jazz-laced Traffic of Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys and John Barleycorn Must Die from the moment I heard them; what I missed out on was the early, poppy, mildly loony Traffic that had Winwood trading songs with another Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, guitarist Dave Mason – the composer of (among other things) “Feelin’ Alright,” which Joe Cocker spectacularly made his own on his muscular album With a Little Help From My Friends.
Although bassist-producer Scott Petito’s latest tribute project gave us sumptuous tastes of both bands during a righteous debut show at Club Helsinki in Hudson, this night marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Traffic 1.0’s debut album Mr. Fantasy, so it was that group that got both the spotlight and the love it deserved. And with Eppard handling the lion’s share of the vocals for Petito’s unnamed outfit, Winwood’s limitless range and fiery attack was well represented – and that was a good thing, because although Traffic’s songbook contains some of the best-written music of that period, it’s Winwood’s singular delivery that lifts those songs above those of Traffic’s contemporaries, right up to this day.
That said, the only way to set the evening’s tone properly was with “Glad,” the driving instrumental opening to John Barleycorn. I’ve seen video of Winwood playing the piece’s galvanizing opening figure on organ, and that just doesn’t make the grade; you need a hard-charging, percussive piano to make that lick work, and that’s just what we got from Bruce Katz, who may have been walking with a crutch but was absolutely flying from the first note, serving up championship work on all things keyboard all night long. The sextet Petito had built jumped onto that groove and rode off into the night, with Bill Harris pumping fuzz-coated tenor sax all over Helsinki’s cavernous concert space.
Although the transition between “Glad” and its natural follow-up “Freedom Rider” was slightly muddled, it was all good when drummer Randy Ciarlante hit the down beat and Eppard belted out, “Like a hurricane around your heart / When earth and sky are torn apart…” Just as Winwood wrote, when you heard this siren sound, your soul was in the lost and found. It was from “Freedom Rider” that Petito transitioned us into Traffic’s early years with the bouncing head-shaker “Shanghai Noodle Factory.” While there was definitely more whimsy in this composition than the ones that came before, there wasn’t the too-clever-by-half noodling that made some of Traffic 1.0’s songs more annoying than interesting.
The closest the night got to that frustrating area was “Heaven Is in Your Mind,” which has fun with time signatures from start to finish. Thankfully, Petito and Ciarlante’s rebar-strengthened foundation kept everything securely grounded, even as the band did some serious space travel on “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Paper Sun.” In the spirit of Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi, Ciarlante contributed some nasty vocals of his own on “Medicated Goo” and the song that was my gateway into the world of Traffic, “Empty Pages.” When Eppard wasn’t killing it on vocals, he played both analog and digital congas, occasionally using small shakers as “drum sticks” to expand the music that much more.
Guitar wasn’t a major factor in later Traffic recordings, probably because it was just one more thing Winwood had to play in the studio. On the early stuff, though, Mason’s searing guitar was right up front, and Andy Stack brought more and more of that steel-edged stuff with each passing tune. He was right in your face on “Medicated Goo” (my favorite early Traffic tune), sent the band sailing into a wormhole on “Dear Mr. Fantasy”, and pulled us all into the medieval vibe of “40,000 Headmen” with a beautiful acoustic guitar that danced with Harris’ elegant flute while Katz wrapped swirling organ around the whole piece. Stack also handled the halting vocal to “Feelin’ Alright” perfectly.
Petito finally told us, “This is our last tune…” Then he grinned and added, “but it’s really, REALLY long!” That could only mean the iconic title track to Low Spark, which Petito himself started with big notes from his booming bass; the rest of the band came in layer by layer, making our smiles grow a little wider with each addition. As with everything he did, Eppard handled the piece’s vocal variations masterfully, from Winwood’s hushed opening question to his snarling ending declaration. Although Harris had been doling out head-crushing sax lines when the occasion called for it, he sprinkled a little echoplex on his axe here and sent us all into spiraling ecstasy. Katz’ piano solo was a textbook example of what happens when animal keyboardists attack, and Stack’s storming guitar made you forget the middling solo on the original recording.
The boogie-centric encore “Gimme Some Lovin’” may have pre-dated Traffic entirely, but you had to know Winwood heard crowds call for it long after he left the Spencer Davis Group. Happily, we won’t have to make many calls to see this band again: Petito recently announced on Facebook that there would be more Traffic shows in 2018. Now we just have to get this band a name! My choice would be either Tragic Magic – a tune from the Low Spark follow-up Shootout at the Fantasy Factory – or Freaky Freddie Frolic, after a character in “Medicated Goo.” That last one sets up the possibility of an interviewer who wasn’t that familiar with Traffic asking, “Oh, by the way, which one’s Freddie?”
GO HERE to see more of Rudy Lu’s photos of this concert…
UPCOMING: Next up on the calendar for the Music of Traffic is a concert at The Falcon in Marlboro at 8pm on Saturday, February 17. Donations are encouraged.