There is really no rhyme or reason for the way these things go, but lately I’ve noticed a very definite increase in the amount of people who are discovering, or rediscovering, Traffic. Maybe it’s the dearth of great music, maybe it’s just their time, but in the last few months I’ve had a number of people tell me how great Traffic was, as if it were a revelation.
First of all, when you think back on it, nearly everything that Steve Winwood has been involved in for the last 40 plus years has had something to recommend it. Whether it was his start as a 15 year-old in the Spencer Davis Group, his playing on the classic Jimi Hendrix album Electric Ladyland, his brief stint in Blind Faith, his solo career, or right up to his recent tour with Eric Clapton, the guy has been, and is, a paragon of musical virtue. But throughout all the years, it was with Traffic that he had his finest moments. I would make the argument that Traffic’s music stands up better today than that of nearly any other band of the era.
By 1973, Traffic was a very different band than the one that had gotten together in 1967. Gone for the third time was founding member Dave Mason, and original drummer Jim Capaldi had begun a solo career, though he plays percussion on Shoot Out. Gone too were Jim Gordon and Ric Grech who had joined the band in 1971. They were replaced by Roger Hawkins and David Hood of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio house band. Together with sax/flute player Chris Wood, and percussionist Rebop, the reconfigured band set about to record their sixth studio album in Jamaica. It was the followup to 1971’s Top Ten U.S. hit The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys. A short time later, after releasing one last album, Traffic was gone for good.
The album opens with the hard charging title track, which features Winwood on guitar, an instrument on which he’s always been sorely underrated, and Chris Wood on flute, but it’s the percussion that really drives the track. The 13-minute epic “Roll Right Stones” follows. Winwood is back at his keyboards, primarily piano this time, and it’s one of his classic vocal performances. At the outset, the song has the same slow burning feel as “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” making it the kind of stoner rock that Traffic was known for.
Side two opens with “Evening Blue,” which is slow groove, organ-driven piece, featuring another fine Winwood vocal. Chris Woods’ saxophone blazes the trail on his instrumental “Tragic Magic,” which has guest performances by two more members of the Muscles Shoals gang, Barry Beckett on keyboards, and Jimmy Johnson on clarinet. “(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired” closes the album with another stirring vocal by Winwood, along with his accomplished guitar solo.
Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory is not the apex of Traffic’s recorded legacy. For me, the peak would be John Barleycorn Must Die, or the band’s self-titled second album. Nonetheless, it is representative of the band’s late period, and an outstanding example of a collaboration by great musicians.