Friday, April 1, 2011

Several Species of Small Furry Thoughts - John Barleycorn Deluxe and an interesting Dead experience

While I like the self-titled Traffic album the best, John Barleycorn Must Die is a close second. With the loss of Dave Mason, the now three-piece was moving in a leaner, jazzier direction although they are still experimenting with world, folk and psych elements in their work. The maturity in the band’s music is reflected in the understated, memorable image on the cover. Kicking off with the F.M. classic “Glad” this chugging instrumental has no real antecedent in Traffic’s music. Suddenly they are a completely competent jazz/funk outfit with Winwood’s piano, organ and Chris Woods’ sax leading the way. “Glad” is immediately one of the most recognizable and enjoyable instrumentals in rock history. The following three songs – “Freedom Rider,” “Empty Pages,” and “Stranger To Himself” are much more familiar territory to fans of their previous album. Soulful, intelligent, hip and beautifully written and performed, they are classic Traffic. The title song, however, is another anomaly - and a wonderful one at that. With versions being traced back to 1465, this tale of demon drink and its uncanny hold over the human spirit is performed acoustically with Winwood playing acoustic guitar and singing and Chris Wood accompanying on flute. The result is absolutely magic and became an underground classic. The anti-drinking message (wink wink) really hit the right irony buttons with a 1970 audience. The final song on the original release, “Every Mother’s Son” is a fabulous seven-minute tribute to life on the road. 

For this great deluxe version the second disc contains three alternate versions of songs on the album and then a tremendous seven-song concert from the Fillmore West from 1971. The three alternates are uniquely different from the original versions with “Barleycorn” especially offering up a valuable piece of the puzzle. The live show finds the band, aided by Ric Grech on bass and occasional guitar, in rare form indeed. Considering the odd instrumentation and a leader who split his time between lead vocals, lead guitar, organ and piano the band is wonderfully tight and tear through numbers from their first three albums with precision and abandon. It is really exhilarating to hear them tackle complex songs like “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring” and “Every Mother’s Son” before really stretching out for 14 minutes on exciting versions of “Glad” and “Freedom Rider.”
This is a deluxe version in the best sense of the word. By carefully choosing the right material to illustrate and expand our understanding of a classic album, great gets even better.

Yesterday I got to live out a fantasy of sorts. I got to go to Airshow Mastering in Boulder and not only meet Grammy Award winning sound engineer David Glasser, but I also got to take an early listen to the upcoming Grateful Dead box set - Europe ’72 The Complete Recordings which David is mastering for disc. All I can say is…WOW. As if to read my mind, he chose “Dark Star” from the Tivoli-Copenhagen show. Oh man, it was magnificent. Hearing it played in a perfect stereo room on 8 foot towers of studio monitors… mmmmmmmmmmmmmmDead. It really sounded spectacular. The band was playing with such care during this period. The single-drummer line-up and the plethora of new material had afforded them a lot of rehearsal time and it shows. The fact that they were also playing in some of the great opera houses in Europe also adds to exquisite nature of the playing on this tour. The Dead’s engineer, Jeffrey Norman, and David Glasser have brought this already impressive performance to new levels of clarity and excitement. As the band reaches a spacey climax near the end of the song, Glasser said “I love the organ.” I’ve listened to this show probably 50 times and I’d never noticed that as the band climaxes Pigpen starts playing some slashing, aggressive lines on the organ which add a completely different texture to the performance. The point is that this box set is going to be a revelation to fans I think. The Europe ’72 tour represents one of the major performing zeniths of The Grateful Dead’s career and the 16-track tapes they have of the entire tour are beautifully preserved and are a wonderful keepsake of a grand tour. If you like The Grateful Dead it is hard to imagine that this box (already sold out) will not be a dream come true. I know it will be for me.

1 comment:

David Gans said...

I had exactly the same experience at Airshow last weekend. Same Dark Star*, same seat in the studio, same speaker stacks, and the same response. I can't wait to spend the rest of my life enjoying the complete Europe '72 tour! I ordered my copy the day it was announced.

* I will broadcast that Dark Star (and an interview with Dave Glasser) on KPFA Wednesday, April 6, at 8pm PD. Streaming at