Album of the Week, August 9: The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys by Traffic

TrafficLowSparkTraffic was meant to be a collective, a communal group of musicians pursuing a shared goal. Vocalist and keyboard player Steve Winwood was a music veteran of 19, coming off four years of hitmaking with the Spencer Davis Group. He gathered singer / guitarist / bassist Dave Mason, drummer / vocalist Jim Capaldi and woodwind player Chris Wood (all 22 at the time) at a house in the country. They recorded Mr. Fantasy and signed with Island, achieving real success in the UK. Tensions between Winwood — who wanted to pursue a jazzy sound — and Mason’s rock leanings resulted in Mason’s departure. The trio floundered for a bit before bringing Mason back in. They recorded a second successful album, fired Mason, and broke up. Winwood joined the all-star Blind Faith, which disintegrated after one album. He owed Island two more discs, so he began working on a solo album. The musicians he assembled were former Traffic mates, so John Barleycorn Must Die became another Traffic album, exploring more jazz-folk territory. While touring extensively, Winwood, Capaldi and Wood added Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech, legendary drummer Jim Gordon, and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah to the lineup. That sextet entered the studio and recorded their most cohesive set.

Title The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys
Act Traffic
Label Island Release Date November 1971
Producer Steve Winwood
U.S. Chart  #7 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Hidden Treasure
  2. The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys
  3. Light Up Or Leave Me Alone
  4. Rock & Roll Stew [#93]
  5. Many A Mile to Freedom
  6. Rainmaker

Despite only having six tracks, it’s a full-length disc. Half the songs clock in over seven minutes, with long instrumental passages reflecting the band’s jazz-folk leanings. The band emerged from the tension with Mason and the brief breakup a tighter unit, finally finding the groove that Winwood had long envisioned.

Things open with the tantalizing Hidden Treasure, an inviting, naturalistic song. Mysterious and evocative, it features a lovely vocal performance from Winwood over a lush bed of sounds from the band. The title track is a masterpiece, a dissection of fame and fortune filled with curious observations, biting commentary, and weary resignation. Surging in at over 12 minutes, it swirls by, managing to avoid an over-long feeling. It’s also the finest song in the complicated Traffic catalog and a highlight of Winwood’s long, varied career. Capaldi turns in a fine solo composition with the gritty Light Up Or Leave Me Alone, adding a smart, demanding vocal. The stop-start instrumentation adds to the tension, creating a wonderful edgy rock track.

Grech and Gordon contributed the album’s lone — minor — hit, Rock & Roll Stew. It’s a fun slice of life on the road that features more of the jam-style sound of earlier Traffic. Many A Mile to Freedom is an anthemic track that gives everyone a little workout. The album closes with Rainmaker, a nice bookend to the opening track. With a more acoustic feel and an enchanting duet vocal from Winwood and Capaldi, it’s a stirring closer.

Sadly, Winwood developed peritonitis and was sidelined, causing Traffic to lose momentum. The assembled talent and collaborative spirit of Low Spark is a highlight of the band-hopping supergroup era of classic rock. It showcases some great performers working together to makes something different and special that managed to be accessible at the same time. The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys has lasting power as a highlight of its time.

FURTHER LISTENING: Given the group’s tumultuous history, which fizzled out in 1975, no two albums sound like they quite come from the same band. All three of the albums that precede Low Spark have much to offer. Mr. Fantasy has a whimsical quality and the spark of something new. Traffic is more workmanlike but also features  some stronger songs, including a couple of classics. John Barleycorn suffers from a bit of an identity crisis — understandable given its origins — but is a fine set with some strong moments. Sadly, nothing after Low Spark really catches hold.

Two anthologies provide great overviews of the band. The two-disc Smiling Phases from 1991 is the strongest, really hitting the best moments in their catalog. For those interested in a shorter overview, 2000’s Feelin’ Alright is solid and captures the essential songs.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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