Stevie Winwood is pale because he bleeds. Few rock musicians of such enormous depth have worked under so great a burden of influence. And yet the saving distance of England has granted Winwood at once a necessary detachment from his American roots, particularly the towering authority of Ray Charles, and a native climate of technological innovation that was able to provide the catalyst for the slumbering genius of a Hendrix, suffocating in the purity of rhythm and blues before he went abroad.
The logic of Traffic's acquisition of Atlantic's Muscle Shoals studio personnel (whatever the rumored business circumstances) is clear and gratifying. Since drummer Roger Hawkins (who has played continuously for Aretha, to name only his highest credit) and bassist David Hood joined the band a few years ago, Traffic has made its musical stance explicit: the most solid of R & B bottoms (spiced with Rebop's congas) as a foundation for Winwood's bloody struggle with the haunting Genius and his own soul. The addition of Barry Beckett, Atlantic's studio keyboard man, for the recent German tour only clarifies the band's intentions and, indeed, its achievements.
The four jam-length tunes on this new live album, culled from the German performances, embody Traffic's virtues and defects. The astounding, sizzling groove of Capaldi's "Light Up or Leave Me Alone" combines the band's historically most innovative quality - ensemble texture and depth - with its breathtaking, albeit subtle, soulfulness. Winwood's crimson guitar winds in and out of the sinewy brew, now blazing over the beat, now merging with it in a gorgeous display of rhythm chops.
The band's uncanny ability to sustain an unbelievably slow, deep funk is still there; testimony to its abilities on "Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys." And yet the one factor that has always limited the band, that especially destroys the effectiveness of extended improvisation in concert, is Chris Wood's saxophone. Wood is by now one of the great mysteries of rock music. An utterly incompetent soloist, his single virtue (oddly enough, the one hardest to find among hornmen) is the ability to use a single horn as a rhythm instrument. Wood's solo time actually hurts the energy level, much less embarrasses the musical listener.
The band is somewhat sloppier than it was when Hawkins and Hood first joined; the sparkling clarity of each instrument, sewn so precisely within the folds of Winwood's ensemble conception, is perhaps dulled. With the last studio album a disappointment and this new one mostly a casual exercise, one still awaits the full promise of Traffic's latest crew.
Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, November 13, 1973