British psychedelic fantasies
Steve Winwood was the young prodigy of the British 60's scene. He started singing with the Spencer Davies Group at the tender age of 14 and by 17 he already had a number one in the charts with Keep On Running, a perfect vehicle for his wonderful voice, heavily influenced by Ray Charles. But Winwood was much more than an exceptional singer, he was also a great musician, with a predilection for the keyboard - with the money from his success he bought a Hammond - but also skilled with the four and six strings. In addition, he was not bad at songwriting either, as evidenced by his first band's hits Gimme Some Lovin' and I'm A Man.
As time passed it became clear that the Spencer Davies Group was too small for him and in April 1967 he decided to leave the group to form Traffic with three musicians with whom he used to jam with at The Elbow Room, Jim Capaldi and Dave Mason, who had been in a couple of bands together, and Chris Wood who came from Locomotive. All four were into the burgeoning psychedelia movement and Mason and Wood played, like Winwood, several instruments. To complete the chemistry, the drummer, Capaldi, was also an interesting lyricist who would form an excellent songwriting duo with Winwood.
Shortly after starting they had several hits like Paper Sun, composed by Winwood and Capaldi, and Hole In My Shoe, composed by Mason, on both of which Mason's sitar had a strong presence. The songs also made it clear that, from the beginning, the band had two parts, on the one hand Winwood, Capaldi and Wood, who were more inclined to build the songs in 'jams' and sought a more organic sound, while Mason was the pop member and the one who sought compositions more attached to the nascent psychedelia.
The group was a success and the Beatles were even considering taking them out on their Magical Mystery Tour, so they went to a rural retreat to compose and rehearse new songs for their debut. The group left with enough material to record their first album, Mr. Fantasy, at Olympic Studios in London between April and November 1967. The album appeared the following month and very soon after Mason left the band for the first time, although he returned shortly after to record their second work (although he ended up leaving the band for good shortly after).
The album opened with Heaven Is On Your Mind, a great psychedelic song with Winwood and Capaldi's voices perfectly matched and a nice chorus, sung solo by Winwood, with a great piano accompaniment. The song sounds like ‘1967 with incense all around’, and features a nice guitar solo by Mason. Berkshire Poppies is pure British 'music hall', linking them to the Kinks and the Small Faces, the latter of which also appear on the song with their backing vocals.
House For Everyone is the first of the songs composed solo by Mason, and here the psychedelic effluvia returns, it is more pop, with a preeminent saxophone riff by Wood and an overdone production very much of the time. No Face, No Name and No Number begins with acoustic guitar and Winwood's voice demonstrating what a great singer he is. Wood gives it a baroque pop feel with his flute which, together with Winwood's harpsichord, results in another of the best songs on the album.
Of course, they all pale in comparison to the album's obvious masterpiece, Dear Mr. Fantasy, a wonderful piece of psychedelic rock that is the band's best song (along with Feelin' Alright from their next album). Winwood again demonstrates the strength of his vocals and the band provides proof of their enormous chemistry in anticipation of the harder sounds of the 70s, with Mason on bass and Winwood also showing off on guitar, with two wonderful solos on his white Fender Stratocaster - from his Spencer Davis Group days - connected to a Marshall. No wonder Clapton and Hendrix held him in such high esteem.
Dealer opens the second side on a good note, with a slightly Spanish/flamenco influenced guitar kicking off a song with a hypnotic feel contributed by Wood's flute and incredible bass lines. Utterly Simple is worse, with Mason on sitar and lead vocals, on an utterly insubstantial song. Coloured Rain improves it a little, with a huge Winwood on lead vocals. Hope I Never Find Me There is the first cousin of House For Everyone, as it is psychedelic pop, with Mason on lead vocals. The finale is an instrumental jam to the greater glory of Wood's flute.
With Mr. Fantasy Traffic positioned themselves as one of the great bands of nascent British psychedelia. Benefiting from the instrumental expertise of all its members and Winwood's great voice, Mr. Fantasy is the album that best combines Mason's more pop side with the more elaborate jams of the other three members. A remarkable album from a wonderful and vindicable band.