JIM CAPALDI – Oh How We Danced

1972 was a particularly fruitful year for rock and pop music. That year saw The Rolling Stones release their critically acclaimed ‘Exile On Main Street’; Yes explored deep sonic textures on their indulgent ‘Close To The Edge’; Alice Cooper achieved worldwide acclaim and a massive hit single with ‘School’s Out’; Deep Purple gave us ‘Machine Head and Bowie introduced us to ‘Ziggy Stardust’. That might have been enough to make it great, but in addition, Steely Dan made their debut with the brilliant ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’; Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ was a massive success and Roxy Music‘s debut album sounded as if it were beamed in from another planet. The year also spawned T. Rex’s ‘The Slider’, Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’, Stevie Wonder’s ‘Talking Book’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘For The Roses’, Elton’s ‘Honky Chateau’ and Van’s ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’. With several dozen essential albums, 1972 had so much to give…and often feels like one of those years that keeps giving.

It was also the year that Jim Capaldi released his solo debut. It wasn’t something the Traffic multi-instrumentalist and songwriter had necessarily planned; it came about through a cruel twist of fate. Towards the end of 1971, Traffic were riding high with their fourth studio album ‘The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys’, but disaster struck when Steve Winwood suffered an appendicitis and subsequently became very ill with peritonitis, forcing the band to take a break. Rather than rest, Capaldi took the time to quickly record a selection of his own material during December, and that appeared on record shop shelves as ‘Oh How We Danced’ in March ’72. Kick starting what turned out to be a successful solo career, it had been a serendipitous twist in the Traffic saga.

Without Winwood’s input, Capaldi was a fine songwriter in his own right. What is, perhaps, most striking about ‘Oh How We Danced’, though, isn’t just the quality of Jim’s own material, but the brilliant array of guests called upon to make that material a reality. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section puts in some really hard yards as backing band on the bulk of the record, but with guest spots from The Move’s Trevor Burton, the legendary Paul Kossoff and a few Traffic faces also appearing, it becomes more than a mere curio – it becomes an essential extension to the Traffic discography.

The opening track ‘Eve’ takes one of the furthest leaps from Traffic – and especially ‘Low Spark’ – and actually begins like an easy listening workout. This is almost certainly why it takes pride of place at the front of the disc; after all, there’s bugger all point in a solo album if it sounds like a rehash of your day job. Capaldi’s piano playing is strident throughout, placing him almost in the same sphere as Elton John circa 1971, but it’s actually his mellow, almost chocolatey vocal style that carries the broadest appeal. Traffic fans shouldn’t fear that everything is too schmalzy, though, as the second half of the track builds upon a fine melody. With the addition of an understated organ and a reasonable guitar solo from Jimmy Johnson, the beginnings of its true brilliance begin to emerge, but it’s once the horns emerge – almost unexpectedly – it shifts from being something that sounds like reasonable AM radio filler from decades past to something that holds firm as a launching point for a potential solo career. The horns make Capaldi’s chosen blend of pop, rock and soul really spring to life. Looking back across the decades, a lyric that was almost certainly about purity now seems a little sinister, but it’s probably best not to read too much into it. In just thee and a half minutes, Capaldi shows a natural affinity for the soft and understated, which actually makes him seem like a peer of Leon Russell or various Asylum Records signings.

‘Big Thirst’ opens with a piano oriented sound that isn’t a million miles away from being a Carole King classic, before venturing into a deeper soulful sound with Jim’s crying vocal augmented by a brassy backing vocal from Sunny Leslie. The strong male/female harmonies give the number a solid backbone, if not the most memorable of hooks. The way Capaldi and band have managed to create something that falls somewhere between a Delaney & Bonnie ballad and a deep cut from Rod Stewart’s ‘An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down’ demonstrates a willingness to let the music breathe at all times. More mature than ‘Eve’, there’s something here that Traffic might have shaped into an interesting jam, but it would have been very different. As it stands, it’s one of the album’s true highlights. In fact, Jim’s ache as he rises from a soft croon into a full cry for the last chorus could easily be his best vocal moment on the whole LP.

Picking up the mood, ‘Love Is All You Can Try’ fuses a 70s rock/pop sound with a busy rhythm ‘n’ blues swagger. Barry Beckett’s piano rattles with intent throughout which, once joined by a compliment of sassy horns, also casts the mood back to the late 60s r ‘n’ b soul shows with Delaney & Bonnie. There’s so much musical wonder packed into these three minutes that Capaldi’s understated vocal almost feels redundant. It was unlikely that he set out to be a spare wheel in his own band, but with the horns and piano placed much higher in the mix than the vocal, that’s how it comes across, especially with Johnson completely stealing the show with a busy bar-room piano solo along the way. Something that’s fun rather than emotive, this track sounds even better when played at volume. Tapping into an even deeper 70s sound, ‘Last Day of Dawn’ teases with funky cop movie rhythms – something reinforced by a heavy conga played by Traffic’s own Rebop Kwaku Baah – and a string arrangement that wavers between grand and ominous. In fact, almost everything that fills this kitchen sink arrangement sounds film score worthy. Amongst the general busy-ness, you’ll also find a great song. Nothing is as instant as ‘Big Thirst’, but Capaldi’s voice sounds more confident here as he cries through a string-augmented verse, which makes it worth an ear. Upon hitting the chorus, his take on 70s adult pop doesn’t always sound too far removed from a couple of tracks from Clapton‘s solo debut from 1970. While all of this might appear a little dated several decades down the line, purely from a period perspective, it’s really grand – another reason to hear this album if you’ve never done so.

Taking a step back into the more easy listening sounds that began this musical journey, ‘Don’t Be A Hero’ is a fine piano ballad that gives Jim plenty of time in the vocal spotlight as he croons and cries gently. His voice has a natural soulfulness that’s complimented very strongly by a spacious arrangement – one that wouldn’t have sounded the same at any point after the close of 1973. The downbeat vibes are a perfect compliment to a harrowing lyric concerning the perils of addiction. This is something that, in retrospect, becomes almost unbearably sad once Paul Kossoff steps forth to offer a really mournful solo and, as before, the whole band is in great shape. On first listen, ‘Don’t Be A Hero’ just sounds like a massive downer, especially juxtaposed with the previous two tracks, but once you become very familiar with the album as a whole, its sorrowful sounds transition to become more of an aching beauty. In many ways, its message and musical maturity set it up to be the record’s centre-piece.

If, for some reason, this album hasn’t grabbed you so far, it has an ace up its sleeve. ‘Open Your Heart’ sounds exactly like a lost Traffic gem – and that’s precisely what it is! A left-over from the ‘Low Spark’ sessions, this tune with Jim taking lead vocals showcases everything that was great about Traffic at that time. A strong pop melody is strong from the off as Capaldi weaves his voice in and out of a strident piano tune, while Steve Winwood fills space with swirling organ sounds. Reaching the point where a pre-chorus appears to be missing, the band sound as if they’re toying with a late 60s Motown melody and while the chorus isn’t as big as it should be – almost certainly why this was left on the shelf – it’s big enough to give this piece an obvious musical peak. As the band works through a couple of similar musical passages, it seems okay rather than great…and then, some true magic occurs during the coda. The the tempo is increased and so, too, is Winwood’s intensity on the organ and he and Capaldi launch into a simple call and response refrain based around the title. As the last notes fade, it becomes clear that this is actually ten times better than first suggested – that final vocal arrangement gives enough of a lift to make it another album highlight. Obviously, if you’re approaching this album due to a love of ‘John Barleycorn’ or ‘Low Spark’, it’s a must hear.

‘How Much Can A Man Take’ begins in an almost Faces-esque way with a mid-tempo verse built around a slightly scratchy vocal – a very natural fit for the album – but quickly blossoms into something more complex. With a selection of busy basslines (played by Trevor Burton), some jazzy inflections via flute and sax supplied by Traffic’s own Chris Wood and another great piano part, the instrumental breaks sound like a jazz rock menagerie that’s been partially restrained. The main groove falls very close to a couple of previous Traffic numbers, and this is something which suits Burton well. The jazz rock vibes inspire Koss to play in a funkier way too, but there’s no disguising the dirty blues tone with which he is most associated. His featured solos have fire, but its almost like even he recognises that Wood and Burton should carry the weight. With so much talent within the amassed musicians it’s almost hard to know what to focus on first, such is the brilliance of the music. However, if you’re a big Traffic fan – and of course you are, otherwise you wouldn’t necessarily be interested in a Jim Capaldi solo album – Wood’s contributions will sing out incredibly clearly, right from the first listen. Wood’s presence is enough to secure this a place at the top of the table along with ‘Open Your Heart’, but everyone is absolutely on fire throughout.

In closing, Jim turns his hand to a cover version. If it were not for the fact the album takes its title from said tune’s famous refrain, the decision to turn ‘Waves of The Danube’ – written in 1880 and popularised by Al Jolson as ‘Anniversary Waltz’ in the 40s – into a rock-oriented workout would surely be considered an odd move. …And yet, here it is. And what’s more, it doesn’t sound like a novelty, like filler or any kind of afterthought. The main vocal melodies are intact, but everything else has been rebuilt from the ground up. It has a punchy funk bassline worthy of The Temptations (placed very highly in the end mix), a collection of parping brass stings accentuating the 70s sound, a howling lead guitar solo (again, courtesy of Paul Kossoff) and, eventually, the kind of bangs and whistles business you’d get from an Ike & Tina soul revue. There’s also a wandering sax, handclaps and brass stings that would make King Curtis proud. In the middle of it all, there’s Jim, singing his heart out as best as he can. Much like ‘Love Is All You Can Try’, the band seem to outgrow him and this becomes more than obvious on the coda, once the various horns start talking to each other. As far as left of centre covers go, it more than holds its but that has more to do with the session guys playing their hearts out than it actually being a great song. It’s an interesting way to close the record, in that it draws the focus away from the supposed featured artist once more, almost as if Capaldi never believed in his own star quality…

Throughout Traffic’s all too short, stop-start career, Jim Capaldi was a prolific writer, but he almost always co-wrote with Steve Winwood and subsequently let him take lead vocals on those songs. ‘Oh How We Danced’s eight tracks set the stage for a much broader talent. ‘Open Your Heart’ and ‘How Much Can A Man Take?’ provide a couple of vital deep cuts within the Traffic canon, and in many ways, the whole album feels like a natural link between ‘Low Spark…’ and 1973’s ‘Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory’. We can only guess what the next Traffic album would have sounded like, though – or even if any of these songs would’ve been written – if Winwood hadn’t been indisposed. While ‘Oh How We Danced’ isn’t the kind of album that shares all of its charms instantly, once it does, its natural feel and occasionally laid-back moods become broadly appealing. It might not ever hit the heights of the very best Traffic albums, but it’s fine start to a solo career that would eventually give Capaldi chart hits on both side of the Atlantic and keep him in the studio long after Traffic’s early demise.

[‘Oh How We Danced’ was reissued as part of a Jim Capaldi box set, ‘Open Your Heart: The Island Recordings 1972-1976 in March 2020. The box also includes expanded versions of ‘Whale Meat Again’ and ‘Short Cut, Draw Blood’, as well as a DVD containing two previously unreleased Old Grey Whistle Test appearances.]

March 2020