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Skiffle SessionsVan Morrison, Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber, The Skiffle Sessions - Live in Belfast (Virgin 2000) - Three veteran performers from the United Kingdom gather on the Skiffle Sessions. A live album recorded on November 20-21, 1998, at Whitla Hall in Belfast, The Skiffle Sessions has an easy, free-ranging feel that recalls Paul is Alive by Paul McCartney.

Skiffle was a mid-50s British phenomena headlined by such musicians as Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber, who combined blues, jazz and folk for such hits as "Rock Island Line" (1956). While Skiffle is now but a brief footnote to rock and roll history, it formed and essential bridge in Britain from the vapid post-WWII pop to the 60s sound exported as the British Invasion.

Van MorrisonMore importantly, skiffle led youngsters throughout Europe to pick up guitars, banjos, washtubs, and drums, starting the musical careers of such artists as John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Quarrymen, Van Morrison of the Sputnik, Graham Nash, and members of the Kinks and Gerry & The Pacemakers.

This is not your usual Van Morrison album, as songs like "Good Morning Blues," "Alabamy Bound," and "Frankie & Johnny" have a loose, shuffling feel. Morrison and Donegan provide acoustic guitars and share lead vocals, and are joined by Barber on string bass, trombone and backing vocals. The well-oiled combo just wanted to have fun, and is captured in full glory on this recording.

Van MorrisonThe Skiffle Sessions has a bluegrass feel throughout, though with more of a driving backbeat.

The highlights of the album are the best-known tracks: "Midnight Special" and "I Wanna Go Home"(better known as "Sleep John B" by the Beach Boys).

Lonnie DoneganOther musicians on The Skiffle Sessions include Paul Henry and Big Jim Sullivan on acoustic guitar, Nick Payne on harmonica and saxophone, Nicky Scott on electric bass, Chris Hunt on drums, Alan "Sticky" Wicket on percussion and washboard, and guest Dr. John on piano on two tracks.

While the band has a polished and effortless sound, The Skiffle Sessions is a relaxed and friendly album. Like the recently unearthed bluegrass gem, Reflections by Chet Atkins & Doc Watson, The Skiffle Sessions is the work of studio veterans who enjoy their trade and performing live on stage. While you might not find yourself playing The Skiffle Sessions repeatedly, the album is an enjoyable blend.

TrafficTraffic, Feelin' All Right: The Very Best of Traffic (Island 2000) - Here's a solid compilation from the seminal rock group, Traffic. With 15 digitally remastered recordings from the band's first five studio albums, the Very Best of Traffic is a winning entry.

Covering Traffic on one compilation (even a 70-minute set) is a daunting task, as the band underwent numerous lineups. The first grouping included Steve Winwood, the charismatic guitarist, organist and voice of the Spencer Davis Group, joined by Chris Wood on flute, saxophone, organ, and percussion, and rounded out by Jim Capaldi (drums and percussion) and Dave Mason (guitar, mellotron, sitar, tambura, and bass guitar), both formally of the progressive English ensemble Deep Feeling.

TrafficThis combo lasted for two albums: their 1967 debut, Mr. Fantasy (represented by four tracks, including "Hole in My Shoe" and "Dear Mr. Fantasy") and the self-titled 1968 follow up (represented by "Forty Thousand Headmen" and "Feelin' All Right," which was later popularized by Joe Cocker, among others).

This foursome enjoyed solid success in the UK. Recalls Winwood, "Traffic had a kind of lifestyle which, in a strange way, was a driving force behind the music. It wouldn't be true to say that we were city people. Jim Capaldi certainly wasn't and Chris lived right on the edge of Worcestershire, which was fairly rural. I lived similarly on the edge of Birmingham, and although it has sprawled out a lot since, it hadn't then. We identified this strong rural influence and it was one of the strongest driving forces behind Traffic."

Dave MasonWhile Traffic blossomed in the English countryside, dissension arose when Dave Mason wanted to proceed on a more commercial, pop level (which yielded such hits as "Hole in My Shoe," whose rose to number 2 on the UK charts in September 1967).

Recalls Winwood, "Dave was a bit of a loner. He wasn't quite interested in the kind of ragamuffin way of life we had adopted. 'Hole in My Shoe' was a turning point because it was one of the first things Dave had done for Traffic and we all felt that it didn't represent us all. We knew it was very commercial, but we didn't like it. Dave wanted it put out as a single and so did the record company. It was the first divide between us and it never really healed."

Mason departed, and Traffic continued as a trio for their 1969 release, Last Exit, a collection of studio material and concert recordings, which is represented by the psychedelic imagery of "Shanghai Noodle Factory."

TrafficThereafter, Winwood left Traffic to form Blind Faith with ex-Cream guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker. While Blind Faith scored big chart success, the publicity and demands of touring led to Winwood rejoining Capaldi and Chris Wood for 1970's John Barleycorn Must Die, which was well received in America.

Very Best of Traffic features four tracks on this album, including "Glad" and "Freedom Rider," which shows Traffic moving away from its more whimsical psychedelic pop to an increased focus on Winwood's strident lead vocals. (And maybe you'll hear a little bit of the woodsy influences of Jethro Tull on tracks like "John Barleycorn Must Die.")

TrafficAs the decade progressed, the band found itself becoming more of a collaborative effort, with the combo expanding to include former Blind Faith bass player Rick Grech, ex-Derek & The Dominos drummer Jim Gordon, and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah.

Explains Winwood, "With Traffic, nothing was ever really thought out or predetermined. Take Rebop joining the group. He just came on stage with us one night in Sweden and jammed. Then he showed up the next night to play and that was it. He was in the band."

Steve WinwoodThis expanded edition of the band combined for 1971's The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, which is represented by two tracks: the 11-minute title track, and "Rock 'n Roll Stew."

The deluxe package on Very Best of Traffic features a booklet with numerous photographs, detailed annotation and an insightful essay. While Traffic may have started out sounding like Arthur Lee & Love (listen to "Paper Sun"), the spacey piano-based instrumental jam of "Glad," followed by the pop of "Freedom Rider," shows the remarkable talents and development of this combo. Get in gear for Very Best of Traffic.

- Randy Krbechek © 2000

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