Traffic Winds Down

Traffic Winds Down

“Traffic”

Traffic

Shootout At The Fantasy Factory

On The Road

When The Eagle Flies

Island/Universal

Through no fault of their own, Traffic has morphed from an immensely popular, influential and some might argue seminal ’60s/’70s act, to a
nearly forgotten artifact, known mostly to Anglophiles and indie record store employees. It’s hard to say what went wrong, but there were a
combination of forces at work. Regardless of how compelling their sound, in America, Traffic never amounted to more than a footnote in the
post-Brit Invasion ’60s. They had no charting US singles, and their creative combination of pop, folk, jazz and psychedelic rock was a hard
sell to the masses, especially as their songs became longer and more complex during their waning years. Dave Mason and Steve Winwood, the
band’s driving songwriting forces, released progressively less convincing solo music after the group disbanded, while trying to stay vital
in the ’80s and ’90s. Additionally Traffic seemed to gradually fade away in the early ’70s, instead of ending with a tragedy (Led
Zeppelin), well-publicized interpersonal spats (The Beatles) or an historic final tour (Cream).

Furthermore, Universal, who controls the band’s catalog, removed Smiling Phases, the beautifully conceived 1991 double disc
retrospective, from their catalog. It has been replaced by a single Best Of collection that doesn’t do justice to the group’s
overall eclectic sound and omits many important tracks. Consequently it was surprising when Universal started reissuing Traffic’s catalog
in 2000; cleaning up the sound, adding bonus tracks and even making multiple versions of the discs available for those who wanted to own
the British configured albums, which sported a different track listing than their American counterparts. These three releases finish the
job and also help explain why Traffic’s legacy isn’t what it deserves to be.

Coming two years after the platinum selling Low Spark Of High Heel Boys album — a disc that saw the band both expanding to a six
piece and exploring the more leisurely jazz tempos that made its predecessor so popular — Shootout At The Fantasy Factory sounded
like a rush job. Originally released in January of 1973 there are only five tracks (no extras on this reissued version), but more
problematically, the songs lack fire. The band’s performance verges on sleepwalking as they extend the tracks way past their breaking
points. At nearly 14 minutes, “Roll Right Stones” takes a flimsy mid-tempo melody and jams on it far too long. The American rhythm section
hired for the album (Muscle Shoals studio stalwarts bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins) never quite click with Traffic’s British
sensibilities, and the meandering tracks don’t have the sense of drama or mystery that the band always exuded, even on their least potent
albums. Reed player Chris Woods’ “Tragic Magic” instrumental is so bland it wouldn’t cut it on a Pure Moods background music
compilation and the perfectly titled “(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired” adequately sums up the band’s attitude to their least focused
effort. Although it runs less than 40 minutes, the disc feels twice as long.

Shootout was followed later that year with the live On The Road, a document of the subsequent tour for Shootout
recorded in Germany. Spread out over two vinyl albums (but squeezed onto a single disc for this reissue), its six tracks run an average of
13 minutes each. More problematic though was that the set list drew almost exclusively from Low Spark and Shootout, with only
the opening 20 minute “Glad/Freedom Rider” medley hailing from the earlier John Barleycorn Must Die. These versions of the
Shootout
songs make the originals seem tight in comparison, and the lackadaisical, 18 minute “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” is
something even diehards might admit you had to be there to enjoy. The lengthy jams go nowhere, certainly nowhere fast, and the band —
which had expanded to a seven piece with the addition of fellow Muscle Shoals man Barry Beckett — sounds like they need a few shots of
espresso to keep from nodding off. If this is the roots of the jam band phenomenon, it was also a warning of what extending a song for no
reason other than a long solo can deteriorate into.

Traffic then regrouped, both literally and figuratively, to a five piece, losing the Muscle Shoals crew and adding bassist Roscoe Gee. The
resulting When The Eagle Flies, released in fall 1974 — their third album in less than two years — continued the pattern
established by the previous few discs. The songs were more concise and Winwood’s lyrics remain obtuse and the playing sometimes unfocused,
yet in a dreamier fashion that doesn’t seem as plodding. Some of the electronic keyboard textures now seem dated, but Winwood is singing
like he is at least back in the fold, even if the lyrics aren’t any more comprehensible than “Mr. Fantasy.” A slight funk edge helped
“Walking in the Wind” become a standout track of the album, and one of Traffic’s best tunes. A big improvement over the other two discs, it
was nonetheless to be the final Traffic album for 20 years and the last one ever with Chris Wood, the innovative reed man and founding
member who died in 1983.

Hal Horowitz

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